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Success Has a Way of Kicking In at Notre Dame

High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

October 04, 2002|Eric Sondheimer

Forget about playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before football games involving Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High. Music from the "Twilight Zone" would be a more appropriate pregame ritual.

There's something strange, even weird, going on with the Knights and their kickers.

For 16 of the last 17 seasons, Notre Dame has produced a kicker or punter who was named all-league or All-Southern Section.

This season, senior kicker Mike Allen and sophomore punter Greg Folk have made critical contributions to Notre Dame's 3-0 start. Allen has made all four of his field-goal attempts, and Folk is averaging 38.5 yards per punt.

Both are younger brothers of former Notre Dame kickers. And for those who love conspiracy theories, each has a younger brother in eighth grade, attending the same school, enrolled in the same class.

Tyler Allen and Erik Folk are also kickers and will arrive at Notre Dame next season, an indication that the Knights' kicking success shows no signs of waning. Even the backup kicker this season, junior Sean Limahelu, has an uncle who kicked for San Diego State and another uncle who kicked for USC.

"It's 'Kicker University,' " said former Notre Dame kicker Chris Sailer, who went on to become an All-American at UCLA and kick in the Arena Football League.

Sailer is largely responsible for establishing the standard of excellence at Notre Dame. He was a Parade All-American in 1994, when he made 22 of 28 field goals in leading the Knights to a Southern Section championship. To score on the Knights, teams had to drive 80 yards or longer because of Sailer's many kickoffs and punts into the end zone.

Sailer has returned to serve as a roving kicking instructor for Notre Dame and other schools, offering clinics, camps and individual coaching.

Mike Allen worked with Sailer over the summer and made remarkable improvement.

"I've never seen a high school kid more dedicated to kicking and getting better," Sailer said.

Allen kicked almost every day, even booting balls between trees at a park in West Hills. He won the field-goal job from Folk, who spent August playing soccer in England.

Kickers past and present credit Coach Kevin Rooney's unyielding focus on special teams as the major reason for the Knights' success.

"No other school is close to putting in the extra attention he gives to kickers and special teams," Sailer said.

Added Rooney: "We think it's important. We try to recognize kickers and make sure everyone knows how important they are."

Rooney has made compromises with his kickers, many of whom started out in soccer. He allows them to leave practice to fulfill club soccer workouts, something other coaches refuse to do.

Folk, who is the best soccer player at Notre Dame, said he'd choose soccer if Rooney forced him to make a choice. But because he can juggle his schedule, he's sticking with both sports for now. His older brother, Nick, faced the same decision last season and accepted a football scholarship to Arizona instead of playing soccer at another school.

Notre Dame's most renowned kicker besides Sailer was Brian Greenfield, a 1987 graduate who punted for the University of Pittsburgh and the Cleveland Browns.

It takes a special personality, someone who can deal with pressure, to be a successful kicker. Allen learned first-hand from his brother, Ryan, about the highs and lows of the job.

Ryan made 11 of 14 field goals for Notre Dame two years ago, but he missed a 34-yard field goal as time expired in a Division IV semifinal game against Manhattan Beach Mira Costa. Notre Dame lost in overtime, 41-38.

Mike was a sophomore, watching from the sideline.

"When I saw him miss it, I just looked at the floor, dropped my head and felt bad for him," he said.

He tried to speak with his brother a couple weeks later about the kick.

"He told me, 'Shut up,' and I haven't brought it up since," Mike said.

Ryan is a sophomore punter at Yale and still thinks about the missed field goal that could have sent Notre Dame into the championship game.

"It was a low point," he said. "It was hard, but in the life of a kicker, it's going to happen. Things aren't going to be perfect. It taught me that failures come along and you have to meet them and move on."

Mike has embraced the demands of kicking.

"It's kind of exciting to have pressure on you," he said. "The team either loves you or hates you. I haven't been in a situation if you make it, you win, and if you miss it, you lose."

But he wants the chance.

Similar to Newhall Hart with quarterbacks and Long Beach Poly with defensive backs, Notre Dame has established itself as the school for kickers.

It looks as if the Allen and Folk families are going to supply Notre Dame with kickers through 2006.

Rooney, in his 23rd season as coach, doesn't mind. He'll have a few more gray hairs by then, but the kicking game figures to be as good as ever.

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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