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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Even at Part Time, He's Getting His Snaps

November 28, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

It takes a lot to impress a group of teenage jocks, but Mark Sunga of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame finally pulled it off.

Starting at catcher on the varsity baseball team as a sophomore was no big deal. What blew his friends away was Sunga receiving permission from football Coach Kevin Rooney to become the first part-time position player in Rooney's 24 years as coach.

All Sunga does is practice long snapping for about an hour, then is cut loose to do whatever he wants. He doesn't do wind sprints, doesn't spend hours watching game films and isn't required to lift weights.

"Dude, I wish I was you," his friends say.

There are lots of football players who might want to duplicate what Sunga does best, because college football programs offer scholarships to long snappers, and the 6-foot, 210-pound Sunga just might get one.

"I find it stunning, but at the same time, if it can pay for your education, I'm all over it," he said.

Sunga, a junior, was judged the top long snapper among more than 20 participants at a clinic this month, earning him an invitation to snap the ball in January at a national high school kicking competition to be attended by college recruiters.

Sunga was a middle linebacker as a freshman and offensive lineman as a sophomore. He decided this season he wanted to devote more time to baseball, so he approached Rooney about serving only as a long snapper.

"We made an agreement," Sunga said. "I put football first for now."

Football is his top priority for one hour a day, when he's hiking the ball on punts, field goals and extra points to Notre Dame's kickers. Then he'll leave for the batting cage.

Having Sunga play football is important for the Knights (9-2), who play at Lynwood tonight in a Southern Section Division III quarterfinal playoff game.

In a game against La Canada St. Francis, when the rain was pounding, Sunga somehow made hiking a wet ball look easy.

"It was beautiful to watch his snaps with such force and velocity," Assistant Coach Jeff Kraemer said.

Long snapping is a specialty much in demand. Former Notre Dame tight end Harper LeBel earned $275,000 as an NFL long snapper in 1997. He played 10 years in the NFL.

Three former Los Angeles Loyola long snappers -- John Winnek, Paul Pernicky and Jeff Grau -- earned scholarships at UCLA as long snappers after walking on. Grau was a seventh-round draft choice of the Washington Redskins last year.

USC's long snapper, Joe Boskovich, is a former tight end from Westlake Village Westlake who earned a scholarship after walking on. Boskovich said there was no other way to fulfill his dream of playing for the Trojans than to become a long snapper.

"I feel we have more pressure on us than most," Boskovich said. "It's a great thing. If I ever have boys, once they hit 12, I'm teaching them long snapping. It's amazing where you can end up with it because there's not a lot of guys who can do it."

Many colleges get their long snappers as walk-ons, then offer scholarships to those who perform well. It's an important position in the special teams scheme, with coaches potentially losing jobs because of a bad snap going over the head of a punter or a high snap causing a kicker to miss a field-goal attempt.

Sunga is athletic, coordinated and still growing, which makes him a candidate to be a long snapper beyond high school as long as he continues to perfect his skills. But he also isn't giving up on baseball. He could try to play both in college.

He's even flipping television channels at home watching football games specifically to see how the long snapper is doing.

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Thanks to fortunate scheduling, UCLA basketball Coach Ben Howland will get to see his future point guard, Jordan Farmar of Woodland Hills Taft, play in a 6 p.m. game of the Hawthorne tournament Tuesday, then can watch his son Adam make his debut for Brentwood in a 7:30 game against defending state Division I champion Westchester.

Brentwood returns three all-league players, led by Brandon Turner, but its opponent, the Comets, are loaded.

Asked how his team plans to guard 6-foot-9 Amir Johnson of Westchester, Brentwood Coach Will Callanen said, "I think we're going to start with prayer in the morning."

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Fate sometimes brings families together, like the Whites and Gages of Huntington Beach. Dave White and Mike Gage were born in Saginaw, Mich. Neither knew the other. Each moved to Southern California, with Dave playing quarterback at Edison and Mike playing receiver at Santa Ana Mater Dei. They finally became teammates at Orange Coast College in the fall of 1974.

Mike moved away, with his son Josh playing football in Washington. But Josh transferred to Edison this season, where Dave is head coach and his son Matt is a receiver, reuniting the second generation of Whites and Gages.

"Twenty-eight years later, the grandkids of the Saginaw parents are playing together," Dave White said.

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

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