The Fort Zumwalt South Bulldogs entered the last week of September as the No. 4 in the nation and No. 2 in the state, according to the Sept. 29 Max Preps’ team rankings.
The undefeated team has its sights set on claiming a state title in November. Leading scorer Karson Gibbs believes they can.
“If we keep playing like we have been, I think we can run deep in the postseason,” Karson said. “If we don’t get overconfident, I think we can do well. Every game, coach tells us we have to play hard like it’s for a state championship.”
The euphoria that comes from a state win is something Karson has already experienced. Two years ago, he played a big role in helping the Bulldogs win their first state soccer championship.
That win left a big impression on his younger brother, Ryley. So this season, Ryley decided to leave the Academy where he played club soccer, and join his brother on the field for Fort Zumwalt South.
“Seeing Karson go through that experience of winning state and everything made me want to quit the Academy,” Ryley said. “That’s what made we want to play in high school – the chance to win a state championship. It’s an incredible atmosphere, a great feeling, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
A dynamic duo
In the Bulldogs’ first 10 games (Aug. 28-Sept. 26), Karson scored 19 goals. Ryley came in second with 10 goals. Karson took his freshman brother’s effort in stride.
“It’s good he’s playing with us,” Karson said. “It’s always good to have someone who will play the ball and score goals.”
Though the brothers have always played on different teams, Karson said competing together is “pretty good.”
“They absolutely love the game,” said Bulldogs coach Jim Layne, who has been the program’s head coach since 2010. “They’re kids who appreciate everybody on the team. They do a fantastic job of being humble while going about their business.”
Layne, who is a class of 2000 Fort Zumwalt South alumnus, said the brothers are “two of the hardest workers on the team” and noted that their “foot skills are at the upper echelon of most players around the area.”
“They don’t take a day off,” he said. “They put the work in day in and day out. You want your top players to be an example to others and they certainly are.”
Their dad, Brandon Gibbs, played at Francis Howell North and coached both of the boy’s youth teams.
“They have played in their backyard forever. They know each other’s tendencies very well. You can tell they are family and brothers. They look out for each other,” Layne said.
As a freshman, Karson, a 5-foot-9, 150-pound forward, scored 14 goals and 14 assists for 42 points with five game-winning goals. Last year, he scored 22 goals and 15 assists for 55 points. Four of those goals were game-winners.
Those are numbers his brother may well be aiming to pass. Already, Layne said Ryley has exceeded expectations.
“When you (have a) 14-year-old on the field against 18-year-olds, you don’t know how he’ll match up physically and with their speed,” Layne said. “Ryley is extremely quick with the ball like his brother. For his age, he’s a little bit of a surprise for us.”
Sights set on state
In 2018, Fort Zumwalt South won the Class 3 state championship with a 2-1 victory over Webster Groves to cap a 21-9 season. Last year, it looked like a repeat as the Bulldogs entered the postseason with just one loss. However, the club finished 25-2 with a 4-0 loss to Rockwood Summit, the eventual state championship, in the sectional round.
“We’ve been blessed with some pretty talented players for quite some time,” Layne said. “The last couple of seasons have been very special. We ran into a team a little better than us last season but we’ve picked up where we left off. It’s been fun the last two months.”
Karson remembers the loss to Summit. He said it fuels him and his teammates.
“I really do feel like we have some unfinished business,” Karson said. “To end in the sectionals like that, we didn’t play good at all. We played good all season and not in that game. We have to bounce back from that loss. I think it was a little bit of an upset.”
The Bulldogs lost 16 players from last year’s group. All but one of those 16 were part of the 2018 state team.
“Our core is still there,” Layne said. “We have four seniors. One of them (Luke Walsh) has been there all four years. Luke is a center back. Jack Jellinek is a junior center back. They are the anchors in our backfield.
“Junior center midfield Ryan Harvatin is a box-to-box player. He logs a lot of miles in a game and he’s good with the ball.”
The Bulldogs boast two talented goalies in junior Luke Dillon and sophomore Evan Baisch.
“Luke is a three-year varsity starter. He’s a special player for us,” Layne said. “He went down in the Francis Howell game with a deep bruise in his thigh earlier this season (Sept. 3) so he had to sit.
“Evan is our JV (junior varsity) goalie and we put him on the roster if Luke got injured. He’s done a really nice job. When his number was called, he gave us an opportunity to win. When he had to make a save, he did. Luke has taken him under his wing.”
In the their district alignment this fall, the Bulldogs are in District 7 with Hannibal, Marshall and Warrenton.
“We were shocked. We’re typically stuck in a district in our area,” Layne said. “We are paired up with schools more west and north of us. The district is what it is. Hopefully, we’re playing well come district playoff time.
“We have a good squad. If we play collectively as a group, our biggest asset will be how difficult we make it for teams to play (against us). If we can sustain that all the way through November, I can see us being one of the last teams standing.”
Fort Zumwalt South vs. Lafayette High • Sept. 26
All photos by Fort Zumwalt south High student Sydney Truscott