When it comes to kickers, the Cheektowaga Central High School football team has developed a reliable farm system to develop fresh talent.
It’s called the school’s soccer team.
“It started, I think, around 2010,” football coach Mike Fatta said. “We had a kid that wanted to do it. Ever since t hen, we’ve had someone to do it.”
The current kicker is senior Kyle Krzanowicz, who had an extra point in Friday’s opening-night win over Dunkirk. That was just a couple of hours after playing soccer for Cheektowaga in a late-afternoon game with Depew.
It’s somewhat of a tricky balancing act for all concerned. The plan isn’t unique − Amherst, for example, has used a soccer player to kick in the past − but it does take some extra effort.
“It starts with relationships,” soccer coach Matt Haberl said. “It wouldn’t work if the relationship we have with the athletic director and the football coaches weren’t there. The respect we have within the department starts with communication with the athletic director. What do you need? What don’t you need? What’s the practice schedule?
“It’s not easy. We’ve had times when parents have had to take a kid and fly to a football game. But you make it work. So far we’ve been able to do it at Cheektowaga.”
What’s more, a kicker can play a huge role for a team during the course of a season. You never know when an extra point or field goal can be the difference in a game, particularly when the playoffs arrive.
“We haven’t kicked a lot of field goals, but we’ve kicked a lot of extra points that can make a big difference in games,” Fatta said. “If you can get the automatic ‘one,’ that’s what we need. Still, if you can kick field goals, it can help. If you’re up one point, and you can make it a four-point game, that can make a big difference.”
The process began six years ago when Fatta went to Haberl and asked his opinion on who might be a good kicking candidate.
“It’s a matter of who has a strong leg,” Haberl said. “The kicking is so different. When you’re kicking a football, you want to get under it and get height. I don’t want that type of kick, because it will put it over the goal − unless you have a goal kick. You want a strong leg, good grades and the support to make it work. You need all three.”
“Matt’s always given us good advice,” Fatta added. “We’ve had a host of good kickers. The one kid who came in was a sophomore, Anthony Grabp, who did it for three years. Now we have a new guy doing it.”
Actually, there are three soccer players who kick a football. Krzanowicz and junior Noah Williams battled for the job for the varsity, and sophomore Alex Sparbel is with the JV. All three start for the varsity soccer team. Their stories differ about how they became kickers.
“I’ve always watched football,” Krzanowicz said. “Before soccer I wanted to be a football player. This was the first year I decided to be on a team. I wanted to help them out so they could get as far as they can. Kicking is pretty important when it comes to certain aspects. I wanted to give them something they could trust. That was my thinking.”
“I’ve seen my keeper try it out,” Williams said. “He was doing pretty well, and I said maybe I want to try that. I went to the JV coach, who was also the track coach, and I asked, ‘Can I kick for you?’ He said sure. I went in not knowing anything, going in over my head. I kept trying it, and eventually I got good at it. Last year on JV I did a half-decent job and I’m looking to do a lot better this year.”
Then there’s Sparbel, who probably will be waiting his turn until at least next year.
“I made a bet with my best friend,” he said with a laugh. “I got him out to play baseball, and he said if he did that, I had to play football. The team really has welcomed me as a kicker.”
The idea of playing for two high school teams in the same season creates an image of someone frantically running between practice fields to get time with each squad. In reality, it is easier than it sounds. The teams don’t play games at the same time.
“There’s really not a lot of overlap,” Fatta said. “They have to practice with the football team, so we work out their schedule to do that.”
Players have to take part in most of a team’s workouts in order to play in games. The football team has learned to schedule special-teams drills at times when the soccer players can make it.
“They are soccer players first,” Fatta said. “But they are part of the team.”
That last part helps. All of the kickers said the football players have made them feel welcome, and Krzanowicz enjoys helping them out.
“To me, if I can talk to a soccer player, I can get through to a football player,” he said. “So that’s what I’ll be focusing on.”
As for the players, it sounds like they could use a personal secretary to make it all work.
“I have two sports, and I have to go to work,” Krzanowicz said. “It’s pretty jam-packed. But I’m good with doing that if I can help guys out.”
The practice time with the football team is invaluable, because the kickers need to improve. It’s not as if they have been kicking field goals since elementary school.
“It’s a lot different,” Williams said. “Some people think it’s the same, but it’s a lot different. With soccer, you’re not as pressured as when you are kicking a field goal.”
“There’s pressure in any game,” Haberl said. “If the kid shows up, it all comes down to his demeanor. If he shows up and tries, it all works out. The coaches of every sport talk to the kids and make sure they are ready.”
It adds up to plenty of extra work, but there are some rewards. There’s that extra pin that goes into a high school letter after the season is over. Then there’s the case of taking part in the long tradition associated with high school football. The lure of Friday Night Lights is strong, particularly with a team that has been a consistent winner on the gridiron in recent years.
“It’s probably part of it,” Haberl said about the willingness of soccer players to play football. “In 2009, we started winning championships in football. It was amazing. The program makes the whole atmosphere better. The girls volleyball team has done well too, and it sets the tone for the whole school year. Who doesn’t want to be part of a championship team?
“They are only in high school once. The fan who comes out for soccer is someone who is different than a football fan. Buffalo is a football town. As much as I have a passion for soccer, I know football has a different crowd. There’s a little more limelight. Who am I to stop it?”
And there’s the matter of the chance of the ultimate big moment − a kick on the surface of New Era Field, where the Bills play, to give the school a Section VI championship.
“I think about it a lot − all the time,” Williams said. “I think, what if I can get there? What if I can help us?”