By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Sometimes, telling a little white lie can work out in your favor. When current Cedar Creek senior Pat Moran was in fifth grade, his youth football coaches were on the lookout for kickers. They had each kid attempt a kick, figuring whoever had the longest strike would be somebody they could mold into a place kicker. Moran didn’t kick the ball the farthest, but he told the coaches he did so that he could be the kicker.
Eight years later, Moran is one of the best kickers in South Jersey and last fall helped Cedar Creek win a state championship by converting an extra point in the waning minutes that lifted the Pirates to a 28-27 win over West Deptford. The boot gave the Pirates a 28-21 lead, and the Eagles drove down for what appeared to be the game-tying touchdown, but they couldn’t convert the extra point and Cedar Creek held on to win.
That’s how important the kicking game has gotten in high school football. It can decide state championships.
“That’s the difference nowadays from back in the stone ages when I played. We just went from one sport to another back then,” said Holy Spirit head coach A.J. Russo, who has a tremendous kicker as well in senior Cade Antonucci. “Now, it’s becoming much more specialized from sport to sport, and even within the sport itself — quarterbacks, kickers — there are camps for that. It’s a business, for good or bad, but I’m not surprised because that’s the way the sport is going.”
“It’s starting to become a really big part of the game (in high school). My coaches do a great job of giving me a lot of credit for what I do. I’m kind of a guy in the background at practices, but the coaches do a really good job explaining to the team about everything I do,” Moran said. “I started in fifth grade. They had everybody kick the ball as far as they could. I hit a ball that wasn’t the farthest, but I told the coaches I hit it the farthest so I could be the kicker. I ended up doing really well. My dad got a hold of Jim Cooper and I started going to lessons with him, and I’ve been working with him since I was about 9 year old.”
Jim Cooper, a former Mainland and Temple University standout whose son, also named Jim, kicked at Mainland and Temple, trains many of the area’s best kickers. That’s his business, what he does on a daily basis throughout the year. High school kickers know that if they want to be successful for their teams and possibly get a college scholarship, they need specialized instruction from guys such as Cooper. He trains Moran as well as guys such as Zach Sterr of Absegami and Nate Fondacaro of St. Augustine Prep, among a host of others. He also trained 2016 Mainland Regional graduate Mike Juliano, who set a Cape-Atlantic League single-season record last fall by making 10 field goals, the last of which came during the Thanksgiving Day rivalry with Egg Harbor Township and gave legendary coach Bob Coffey a win in his final game.
“That’s about 90 percent of what you need to become a successful kicker. You can’t do anything without the right instruction and the right mechanics, and Jim did a great job of showing me the ropes. Because of him, I learned how to do everything the right way and that gave me the opportunity to be so successful in my high school career. He works with Zach, me, Nate Fondacaro. I’ve been training with those guys since I was a freshman. Kicking is starting to become really big. I’ve been to camps with more than 100 kids, there are kicking camps that rank you nationally. It’s become a really huge part of the game,” Moran said. “I didn’t really start punting until I was a sophomore. I talked to Jim about it, and we thought recruiting-wise for college it would be a great thing to learn. I think it’s helped us out a lot this year being able to flip the field and put the other team in poor field position.”
Punting also has become a huge part of the game. Andrew Donoghue, Ocean City’s star quarterback, doubles as a punter and had a great season, and Antonucci was named first-team all-South Jersey as a punter by the Brooks-Irvine Memorial Football Club, which is a state authorized non-profit group that hands out end-of-season awards and scholarships. Antonucci doesn’t have to worry about a scholarship, as he was recruited by Auburn as a track star, but had he not been committed to track, Russo said he has no doubt college coaches would be salivating over his kicking and punting skills. Antonucci has converted on 30-of-32 extra point attempts this season.
“Cade has a great leg on him, and if he didn’t have a track scholarship to Auburn for throwing the javelin, he would have a great opportunity to be a college kicker. But, when you are No. 3 in the country for throwing the javelin, that kind of sets the tone for what direction you’re going to go,” Russo said. “Field position, as far as punting, is key. Cade has done a very good job for us. He even has a touchdown — against Lower Cape May he took a bad snap, took off and ran 55 yards for a touchdown. He’s one of the best punters around, and as far as place kicking is concerned, he is very accurate and has done a great job for us. And that does add another dimension to your offense. And it’s a huge dimension to your defense when you’re able to flip the field with a punt. Against Atlantic City, we were able to pin them down on the 1-yard line, and on the next play we got a safety, and that kind of turned that game around for us. That was because of a punt Cade made. It was about a 65-yard punt that went down to the 1-yard line. That was an amazing play.”
Moran said most people don’t realize the countless hours kickers put in to hone their skills. He said he spends five days per week throughout the offseason training and working on his technique, as well as the mental side of kicking.
“About five nights a week in the offseason I do drill work. Every night before I go to bed, I have about two hours of specific drills I do before I go to sleep, and I have to do them every night or I won’t be able to create the muscle memory I need,” Moran said. “It might look like I’m just out there kicking, but there is a lot of stuff behind the scenes, from drill work to the mental side of it. You have to be able to flush bad kicks and have enough self confidence to go out there and make the next one.”
When it comes to flushing bad kicks and staying positive, Moran has been proactive, even seeking out the advice of sports psychologists.
“I use experience and practice. My sophomore year was probably the roughest time for me in terms of being able to flush a bad kick,” Moran said. “Working with Jim and going to all these camps, we practice high pressure situations so much that when you go onto the field, it’s just natural. I also have gotten in touch with sports psychologists to get tips for ways of thinking on the sidelines, and that has helped a lot. It gives you an idea of how serious visualizing a kick is, and being able to train yourself can help.”
When it all comes together and he nails a big kick like he did in last year’s state championship game, that’s when Moran said all the hard work pays off.
“When you get into a groove, it’s a really good feeling. After you make a field goal, the next kickoff is almost always a touchback because you have so much adrenaline going,” he said. “When I make a kick, I’m happy, but to me it’s just another kick. I like that I’m able to help my team out because they are always there for me. My coaches have a lot of trust in me, and that’s a big part of it.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN