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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Special teams getting special attention

Private coaching has raised the quality of kickers to an all-time high. Already this season, field goals of up to 54 yards have been made.

September 25, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER | ON HIGH SCHOOLS

When it comes to trends in high school football, there's a big one underway involving special teams.

No longer is a mere five minutes at the end of practice devoted to the kicking game. Most coaches have learned, sometimes the hard way, that the kicking game can be the difference between winning and losing.

"You need to spend one-third of your time practicing special teams," La Canada St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds said.

Private coaching has raised the quality of kickers to an all-time high. Field goals from 45 yards or longer are the norm, not a rarity.

"These kids are putting in the time, and the results are on the field," said Chris Sailer, a former UCLA All-American who began offering private lessons nine years ago and has sent dozens of kickers into the college ranks.

In the first three weeks locally, kickers are booming field goals at impressive rates and distances.

Kyle Steffes of Lancaster Paraclete has made field goals from 50, 49 and 48 yards. Wesley Feer of Chino Hills has a 54-yarder. Markus Trujillo of Huntington Beach Edison made one from 51 yards. Jorge Rosales of Perris has field goals from 51 and 49 yards. Ian Sternau of St. Francis kicked a 48-yarder. Drew Jacobs of Ventura Buena has a 50-yarder.

And then there are the kickoffs into the end zone. With state rules requiring an automatic touchback any time the ball reaches the end zone, having a strong kicker can leave teams with bad field position, helping the defense. Sophomore Alex Ball of Westlake Village Westlake has put 13 of his 14 kickoffs into the end zone.

Coaches have learned to seek out soccer players to fill the kicker role, and many have hit the jackpot.

Steffes had played soccer for 10 years until joining the Paraclete football team last season.

"I was programmed for soccer and soccer only," he said.

His parents finally agreed to let him try football, and the Spirits are thrilled. So far this season, he's four for four on field goals while also contributing as a punter.

Steffes received private lessons from Chad Shrout, the head coach at Lancaster, who's a former college kicker. And Shrout is only one example of a former high school kicker who has come back to train the next generation. Every area of Southern California seems to have an expert to turn to, whether it's Shrout in the Antelope Valley, Sailer in the San Fernando Valley, Brad Bohn in Orange County or Hugo Castellanos in the Inland Empire.

"He's a genius at kicking," Steffes said of Shrout.

Motivating kickers and long snappers are college scholarships. Colleges used to rely on walk-ons. Now they can't afford not to have a competent kicker and long snapper, so scholarship opportunities have grown.

One drawback, though, is that private coaches are expensive.

"It's like being a golfer or tennis player," Sailer said. "It's a big investment for children to get them where they need to be."

The City Section has mostly lagged behind the Southern Section in getting its kicking game to a higher level, and one reason could be that some kickers can't afford to pay for private lessons. Juan Sanchez of Carson started receiving lessons from Sailer and showed his improvement last week with a 46-yard field goal.

The toughest part of special teams is teaching a teenager how to punt.

"That was probably the hardest thing to get down for football," Steffes said.

"There's a lot more technique. Kicking field goals, you can try to do your own thing. With punting, there are so many little things that can ruin your punt -- how to drop it, how to get a spiral, when to kick it."

Buena might have the best one-two combo in the region. Besides Jacobs, punter Tyler Perry is averaging 48.3 yards a punt in two games.

What's clear is that high school coaches are giving kickers respect and paying attention to details.

And kickers are discovering what football can offer.

"There's definitely a huge adrenaline rush," Steffes said. "It's nerve-racking, but at the same time it's fun."

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATsondheimer

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