COLUMBIA — A year ago, Brady Wulff had to watch his Rock Bridge soccer team lose to Hickman in a penalty shootout from the stands while he rehabbed a broken leg. He made sure that didn't happen again this year.
Wulff, the junior goalkeeper for the Bruins, left his feet and dove to his right to block a penalty kick from Hickman junior Matt Baker with six minutes to play, preserving a 2-1 Rock Bridge victory– the first regular season victory against the Kewpies in two years.
The Bruins (6-5) take the field Monday when they host Holt, while the Kewpies (4-4-1) play over the weekend in the Collinsville Tournament.
After the final whistle blew at Rock Bridge's field, Wulff was engulfed in a sea of gold jerseys at midfield. Not a single member of the Bruins' team got out of the celebratory huddle without jumping on Wulff or giving him several slaps on the back, coaches included. Wulff's smile alone seemed to light up the entire stadium.
“It is just a testament to all that he (Wulff) has been through,” Rock Bridge coach Kyle Austin said. “This is his first season back. That was a debilitating leg injury he had to come back from. He’s worked his butt off, and I’m really proud of him.”
Austin makes the team practice penalty kicks every other day to prepare for situations like these, but he thinks that the save still speaks to Wulff’s abilities as a goalkeeper.
“He is a great goalkeeper,” Austin said. “He has these natural instincts, and his reaction time is just unbelievable. He’s one of the best keepers I’ve ever seen.”
Nobody was more confident than Austin about Wulff's chances of blocking the penalty kick. Austin saw Baker go to the right to score in the shootout in last year’s defeat, and had seen him send penalty kicks to the right numerous other times. So before the kick, Austin tried to flag down Wulff to let him know. He didn’t know if Wulff caught on until he blocked it.
“To his credit, he didn’t tip that he saw me,” Austin said. “We teach him, ‘be instinctive, read the PK taker and make your best guess on where you think the ball is going to go.’ He came up big.”
Wulff commands confidence from his coaches, his teammates and even the opposing players. Junior Andy Atkins is Hickman’s leading scorer with five goals and plays on the same Under-17 club team, Pride, with Wulff.
“It hurts,” Atkins said after the game, “But it was just a great play. It was a moment of brilliance by a great keeper. Without him in the game, it’s a different result tonight.”
Wulff didn’t even have to touch the ball until the 37th minute, thanks to a defense that stepped up and got the ball out, something that both Austin and Wulff say the team has been working on.
“We pretty much know we’ve given up some pretty crappy goals so far this season,” Wulff said. “So right now we’ve just really been working on our total defense.”
The game was a physical one that saw both a Rock Bridge and a Hickman player get sent off the field after being booked with a yellow card. Hickman coach Larry Thornburg says that is just a part of playing in the Rock Bridge/Hickman rivalry. He also says part of it is that players are all familiar with each other from club teams, like Wulff and Atkins, or just from playing against one another for years.
Junior Danny Baird also had a big night, scoring the go-ahead goal with 10 minutes left. He took a ball tossed from Travis Salbo and put it off the crossbar past Kewpies’ goalkeeper Chuck Wilson for his first goal of the season.
Rock Bridge and Hickman could play each other again in the district tournament, something both the players and coaches said they will be looking forward to.
“It was a very even-matched game,” Thornburg said. “I know what we’re going to work on, I know what happened. I couldn’t prevent it, but I know what happened.”