Many successful homegrown athletes leave Henry County and never look back. Zach Woods, however, returned home after a highly successful academic and athletic career at Centre College to do what others in the community had done for him.
Woods, who graduated from Henry County High School in 1992, was a two-sport star for the Wildcats. He was a four-year varsity letterman in football as well as being a three-year varsity letterman for the basketball team. He was named the Ross Wallace Male Athlete of the Year in his junior and senior years.
Woods was part of the first Henry County basketball team to reach the All-A Classic state tournament. He was named MVP of the All A Classic 8th Region Tournament.
In the early years of the All-A tournament the first round of the event was played at Rupp Arena which was a thrill to many small-school players who otherwise would have never gotten a chance to step onto the venerated court.
“It seemed surreal to make the state tournament but playing in Rupp Arena in the first round made it even more surreal,” Woods said. “We got to go into the locker rooms. The space behind the goals in a big arena made it feel like the goals were floating in space.”
The Wildcats had to play without starting point guard Tommy Gaffney and Woods, who was known as a physical player, went out early with two quick fouls against the much taller team from Hickman County. Despite the setback the Wildcats hung tough before falling by seven points.
Woods played in another memorable game for the team in his senior season. The Wildcats used a slow-down tactic that no one saw coming in the first round of the district tournament against a powerhouse Shelby County Rockets team that featured 6-10 Matt Simons.
Wildcat head coach Donnie Williams came up with a spread offense that put Woods at the point to draw Simons away from the goal. Woods, who was never known as a ball-handler, was instructed to hold the ball out front until Simons got close enough for the referee to start the five-second count. The other players on the team were spread in two tandems near the half-court line. Shelby County was known for playing man-to-man defense almost exclusively in those days. If they came out on the other Wildcats, Simons would be exposed in a one-on-one situation with a much smaller but much quicker Woods.
The tactic worked early in the game and Shelby County was forced to come out of their man-to-man defense and play a half-court trap defense. That gave the Wildcats a chance because of their passing and shooting skills.
The Rockets eventually won the game on a controversial play at the buzzer when a dropped pass by Simons rolled to an open teammate who hit a long three-pointer before or after the buzzer, depending on which team you were cheering for. According to the officials that night the shot was before the buzzer and the Wildcats were denied a chance to upset the mighty Rockets.
“I got to play point guard in that game,” Woods said with a smile. “A lot of times the coach adds wrinkles or new plays and they don’t work or you never get a chance to use them but that one did. It was frustrating because in those days the tournament was still a blind draw rather than seeded and we drew Shelby who had beaten us pretty good in the regular season.”
Most observers of the program saw Woods as a defensive and rebounding specialist but he had many games in which he had double figures in both rebounding and points.
“A lot of people accused me of padding my rebounding stats because it was difficult to get my shooting touch back after football season,” Woods said with a grin. “I got a lot of rebounds on my own missed shots.”
In football Woods used his versatile athletic skills to play many positions over his four-year career.
The first three years of his high school career were difficult as the team struggled through seasons of one, two and one wins, respectively.
Woods saw his senior season as a turning point.
“Our program had great success in the mid-eighties under Anthony Hatchell but then we really struggled for three years,” Woods said. “When Chief (John Gorrell) came in he began to turn the program around. There was hope on the horizon. I was a kid who could see the big picture somewhat and I understood that I was part of football being taken seriously again at Henry County.”
In his senior season alone Woods played four different offensive positions and two defensive positions as the team won four games.
“I loved the game of football,” Woods said. “Basketball was fun and all my good friends played and we were more successful, but to this day I still love football best. I love the work ethic, the life lessons and the dependency on teammates. I think it is the sport, over and above, where teamwork is at a premium.”
Woods was an all-state honorable mention selection in his senior year.
At Centre College Woods was able to use the versatility gained in high school to get into the Colonels starting lineup as a freshman.
Woods was slated to be a linebacker or tight end at Centre, but injuries to two returning defensive ends landed Woods at that position despite the fact that he weighed less than 200 pounds and stood 6-3. But pound-for-pound he might have been the strongest player on the team and he used his speed and strength to terrorize quarterbacks with his pass rushing ability.
Woods would go on to claim the position as a starter for all four seasons at Centre. He was named to the all-conference team for three years and in his senior year Woods was named the conference defensive MVP and a Division III All-American and Academic All-American.
“I was a much better football player in college than I was in high school,” Woods said. “But I definitely benefited from playing so many different positions in high school.”
After graduation Woods returned home to Henry County where he began a career as a teacher and administrator for Henry County Public Schools.
Woods started as an English teacher and assistant football coach for Mark Johnson, who had been an assistant to Gorrell in Woods’ senior season.
“It always stuck in my mind that Chief and Mark made the time to come to my college football games,” Woods said. “That made it an easier decision to come back and teach and coach at home.”
Woods and Johnson teamed up to have some successful teams together before both became school administrators.
Woods became the assistant principal at the high school from the 2002-2003 school year until the 2007-2008 school year. In 2008, he became the principal of the middle school and is about to start another year in that position.
Woods, who looks like he could still suit up for a football or basketball team, has worked to stay fit over the years.
He enjoys distance running and trains in other ways to stay fit. For those that knew Woods’ disdain for running as a younger man it is almost comical to know that he has run in several of the Derby Festival races including the Derby mini-marathon.
“I believe in fitness so I do a lot of cross training – running, weights and other kinds of workouts,” Woods said. “I hated to run in college and high school. I never would have run for enjoyment or competitively back then.”
Woods is glad he has had the opportunity to work with kids in the community he grew up in.
“Being in Henry County, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Woods said. “Coming through the Henry County School system as I grew up, I feel I have been allotted all the opportunities available and worked with more people that cared for me and wanted to see me succeed than I could count.
“The coaches I had, John Gorrell, Donnie Williams, Mark Johnson, Jim Ganger, John Roberts, Calvin Johnson and others, were strong role models that held high expectations. With hard work and dedication, a kid from Henry County can accomplish anything he or she sets his or her mind to doing. That was always conveyed to me and was a message and mission that drove me to come back to Henry County and continues to motivate me in my daily work almost twenty years later.”