Shore State Finalists: 7 Kickers, 7 Dreams
Every kicker does it at some point during practice.
“State championship on the line, three…two…one,’’ said Shore Regional junior kicker Jake Monteiro. “You hit the longball that wins it and run around the field.”
“Honestly, I’ve been playing it through my head plenty of times,’’ said Barnegat senior kicker Ryan Ulrich. “Even my parents have said it. If it happens, I have to come up clutch and make a big kick.”
Seven Shore Conference teams will take their shot at bringing home a state championship this weekend, meaning seven kickers with distinct stories have a chance to be the ones called upon to make a game-winning kick. From an inspiring story who has made national headlines to a kicker on pace to rewrite Shore Conference records to a former soccer player in his one and only year of high school football, they have all taken a different path to get to this point.
Two teams that are back in the state finals after coming up short last season happen to feature two of the best kickers in New Jersey for the Class of 2015. One of them in particular has been motivated all season by the events of last year’s championship game.
Monteiro, whose team faces Point Beach at 10 a.m. at The College of New Jersey in the Central Jersey Group I final, experienced the highs and lows of pressure-packed football in last year’s double-overtime loss to Florence in the championship. He hit a clutch 30-yard field goal with under two minutes left in regulation to tie the game, then missed a 37-yarder in the first overtime that would have won the game before the Blue Devils were stopped on fourth-and-inches in the second overtime to give the Flashes a 23-17 victory.
“It’s tough to have that be your last kick and think you could’ve ended it right there,’’ Monteiro said. “It just drives you and makes you better. You really want to pull one out for your team in the future.”
Monteiro has responded with a brilliant junior year in which he is 36-for-38 on extra-point attempts and 9-for-11 on field goals with a long of 47 yards, which is the longest field goal of any kicker in the Shore Conference this season. His nine field goals are a single-season school record, beating his own mark of eight from last year. His 17 career field goals are also a school record.
“I have them written down in my room and I look at them all the time,’’ Monteiro said about the records he is shooting for.
A soccer player until he was in eighth grade, Monteiro gave kicking a try and was hooked. The disappointment over the way last season ended also taught Monteiro about having the type of short memory necessary to be a successful kicker. He came out in the Blue Devils’ season opener this year, hit two field goals in a 13-6 loss to Rumson-Fair Haven and never looked back. He handles the kickoffs and placekicking while senior quarterback Matt Muh serves as the punter to make Shore’s special teams an important weapon.
“Once I had a good game against Rumson, I knew I wasn’t going to be shaken up any more,’’ he said.
“He’s just been unbelievable for us,’’ Shore coach Mark Costantino said. “Best kicker in the state.”
Manalapan junior Mike Caggiano knows what it’s like to leave a state title game in frustration, as the Braves have lost in the state finals in each of the past two seasons. They will look to finally get over the hump and win the program’s first state championship when they take on Hunterdon Central in the Central Jersey Group V final at 7 p.m. on Sunday at Rutgers.
“It’s not even just the past two years that I have been dreaming of it,’’ Caggiano said. “When I was in eighth grade, my brother was on the team that lost to Sayreville in an earlier round, so it goes back even to that team. If we lose three years in a row, then it’s just not meant to be.”
Caggiano has been a major weapon on a standout special teams unit for the Braves. He is 57-for-60 on extra points and 3-for-6 on field goals with a long of 32 while also averaging 32 yards a punt with a long of 56. He has dropped nine punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and booted 40 touchbacks. He is part of a unit that also includes punt and kick returners Dan Debner and John Cheung, who have a combined seven touchdown returns between them.
Caggiano signaled his arrival as one to watch when he was only a freshman, booting a game-winning, 37-yard field goal in the final seconds of a big 23-21 comeback win over Brick Memorial in a regular-season game in 2011.
“When you kick a game-winner as a freshman against Brick Memorial, from that point forward, you’ve been in the fire,’’ said Manalapan head coach Ed Gurrieri. “Nothing’s going to be too big for you. The situation is never too big for him.”
“That was a very scary moment in my life,’’ Caggiano said. “I didn’t have much time to think about it in the moment.”
If Caggiano gets his opportunity in what looks to be a tight game against a tough Hunterdon Central team, he will be ready.
“Kickers are supposed to get used to pressure like that,’’ he said. “That’s our job. I’ve been training my whole life to have ice in my veins. If it comes down to that point, so be it. I’ll have to knock it down.”
The Coach’s Daughter
When senior Abby Letson transferred to Colts Neck from Freehold Boro after her freshman year, she figured that she would go out for the football team just to mess with her father, Colts Neck defensive coordinator Tom Letson.
“I figured my dad couldn’t stop me from playing, so it was just a joke on him,’’ she said. “I was a soccer player, and kicker was a position I was capable of playing, so we started kicking. They were going in time after time, so I just challenged myself.”
Letson was in on a handful of extra points as a junior last season, but won the position full time this season. She has responded by going 43-for-46 on extra points and booting a 35-yard field goal for the Cougars, who will play Brick at 4 p.m. on Saturday at The College of New Jersey in the Central Jersey Group IV final in search of their first state title.
“I’ve known Abby since she was born,’’ Colts Neck head coach Greg LaCava said. “When I was the head coach at Allentown and Tom was the defensive coordinator in 1999, he would bring her to practice every day when she was a little girl. She’s grown up to be just like her dad with nerves of steel and a great attention to detail. I think she is the type that likes challenges.”
“My dad loved it,’’ she said about playing football. “He was happy if that’s what I wanted. It's definitely brought us closer together.”
While female kickers are nothing completely new, they are still rare. Letson is the only female kicker in the Shore Conference, following in the footsteps of women like Long Branch’s Leann Bollinger, who became the first girl to ever play in a varsity football game in New Jersey in 1989, and Marlboro’s Sarah Mergenthaler, who was the first girl in state history to ever kick a field goal in a varsity game in 1999.
“It wasn’t a normal adjustment at all, but Colts Neck is the best place ever,’’ she said. “I’m the only girl and it’s noticeable, and it’s something I had to adjust to, but I have felt completely comfortable around the players. It’s not an easy thing to do, but they have made it so worthwhile.”
“I never had to talk to our players,’’ LaCava said. “They accepted her because she went through everything they did. I think more of the curiosity comes from the outside and other teams.”
Whether Saturday’s game comes down to her or not, Letson just wants to be part of school history in her last football game before she moves on to attend Centenary College, which does not have a football team.
“I don’t think about me making the winning kick,’’ she said. “I just want us to win regardless of how it happens.”
Zach McCartney was a member of the soccer team for his first three years of high school, but before he graduated, he had to know what it was like to be part of the Point Beach football team.
“I’ve always wanted to play football, and I figured it’s my senior year, so give it a chance,’’ McCartney said.
McCartney had never done more than kick the ball while messing around with friends until this preseason.
“When I started kicking in August, I had a little difficulty for the first two weeks,’’ he said. “I started learning where to hit the ball, and started picking it up through that.”
It wasn’t long before the player who had never attempted a kick in an organized football game in his life became an important part of a Garnet Gulls team that will take on Shore Regional at 10 a.m. on Saturday at The College of New Jersey in the Central Jersey Group I final. For the season, he is 31-for-39 on extra points and 4-for-5 on field goal attempts with a long of 30 yards. In his fifth game ever, he nailed a 24-yard field goal in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to give Point Beach a 10-7 win over Asbury Park.
“I always felt like I thrive under pressure, so I looked at it that I was more excited to get the chance instead of the pressure is on me,’’ he said. “I have an opportunity to help out my team. (The field goal against Asbury Park) really boosted my confidence and showed how good of a kicker I can be.”
The decision to skip his senior year of soccer and come out for the football team may have changed the trajectory of his athletic career.
“I am very happy,’’ he said. “I feel like it was one of the better decisions I made. I absolutely love football and will try to progress with my career in college.”
The New Guy
Rumson-Fair Haven junior Connor Kelly had not even planned on kicking for the Bulldogs this season as senior Jake D’Amelio returned as one of the better kickers in the Shore from a strong junior season.
However, circumstances thrust Kelly into the spotlight when D’Amelio was dismissed from the team by head coach Bryan Batchler mid-season for a violation of team rules. Kelly was the next man up.
“At first it was a little challenging,’’ Kelly said. “I was just happy to get the opportunity to play. I feel better as a kicker now and have had more time to practice.”
After getting his feet wet in two games, Kelly experienced his first major pressure situation when the Bulldogs hosted Manasquan in a big showdown at Borden Stadium on Nov. 8. The teams were locked in a 15-15 tie when Rumson embarked on a 10-minute drive bridging the third and fourth quarters before having Kelly come out to attempt a 26-yard field goal to break the deadlock. His kick was off the mark, but Rumson came up with a huge turnover that set up the winning touchdown inside the final minute to pull out a 22-15 win.
“I had never experienced anything like that before,’’ Kelly said. “My whole body was shaking, and I was so nervous.”
That served as a learning experience that could help Kelly if he is called upon to make a big kick when the Bulldogs take on undefeated Weequahic on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Kean University in the Central Jersey Group II final. Since taking over as the starting kicker, Kelly is 20-for-22 on extra points, and the Manasquan game is the only field goal he has attempted this season.
“That’s definitely going to help me, especially with a bigger crowd on Saturday night,’’ Kelly said. “I will reflect on that and hopefully perform better. To be honest, it’s all in your head. If you get the crowd out of your head, it’s going to be a lot easier to kick.”
The All-Around Athlete
Of the seven kickers for Shore Conference teams this weekend, only one will be on the field for the whole game.
Ulrich is a wide receiver and starting safety for Barnegat, which will face Delsea at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Rowan University in South Jersey Group III in its first appearance in a state final in history. Ulrich plays on the punt team and punt return in addition to handling kickoffs, field goals and extra points, and he plays both ways the rest of the time. He is the only kicker of the group who has to worry about fatigue if he is called upon to make a big kick late in the game.
“Sometimes it definitely affects me a little bit as the game gets going,’’ he said. “Early in the game I’m definitely a better kicker than later in the game.’’
Ulrich’s duties at other positions also means he gets limited practice time for kicking.
“To be honest, I only pretty much get the first 20 minutes to work on it,’’ he said. “We do kickoff for 10 minutes and field goals for 10 minutes, and I don’t have time to work on it that much on the sideline because I’m always moving.’’
Ulrich is the latest multi-position player to also be a quality kicker for the Bengals, following in the steps of 2013 graduate Pat Moran.
“He definitely taught me a lot,’’ Ulrich said. “He taught me everything about football since I’ve been young. I looked up to him at wide receiver and in kicking. A lot of kickers that came from Barnegat played multiple positions as well. It’s just a thing here in Barnegat.”
Ulrich is 40-for-45 on extra points this year and 4-for-10 on field goal attempts with a long of 37 yards, so he has been a special teams weapon. He also has 11 catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns along with 47 tackles and two interceptions in the secondary.
Delsea is a formidable opponent and the defending champion, so if the Bengals keep it close on Saturday, there is a good chance Ulrich could be called upon to decide the game.
“The difference could be one extra point in a game like this, so I have to be perfect on Saturday,’’ he said. “I have to make every single PAT and if I have a field goal opportunity I have to make it.”
The one kicker whose name is almost certainly known beyond the boundaries of New Jersey is Brick senior Anthony Starego. The 19-year-old, who has autism, made national headlines last season when he booted a game-winning field goal in the final seconds of an upset of Toms River North. He and his parents made an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show and he was also the subject of an ESPN segment on College GameDay.
This season he made headlines again, this time for being granted an unprecedented fifth year of eligibility by the NJSIAA after a court battle. Starego had initially been ruled ineligible for this season by the NJSIAA because he had already played four consecutive years of football and turned 19 before Sept. 1, which exhausted his eligibility under NJSIAA rules. The decision was initially upheld by the Commissioner of Education and then a preliminary injunction filed by the Staregos was denied by a federal judge.
However, the NJSIAA had a change of heart in late September after talking it over with all of Brick’s future opponents. The Staregos had argued that playing football greatly helped Anthony’s development while inspiring other athletes with autism and their parents. The worry was that his prowess as a kicker would be seen as an athletic advantage for Brick, but once the Green Dragons’ opponents declared they had no problem with him playing, he was reinstated.
“It was really an incredible and unbelievable ride,’’ said Ray Starego, Anthony’s father. “Just when you thought Anthony had achieved what seemed to be a miracle, he came up with something else. I was looking at his freshman football card from his photos, and it all came rushing back as I saw the picture.
“I was thinking just a few short years ago he looked like a child and has since grown into a wonderful young man. He went from not being able to even come close to making a kick, to climbing to the top of the mountain. His teachers claim Anthony's success on the field as well as how he is viewed, treated and loved by his teammates and the student body at Brick has caused the most profound impact on Anthony, more than any other student they have had in 30 years of teaching. “
Since returning, he has gone 21-for-24 on extra points and 2-for-3 on field goal attempts. He hit a 20-yard field goal and went 6-for-6 on extra points in a 45-24 win over Burlington Township in the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals that put Brick into its first state final since 1994. The Green Dragons will play Colts Neck at 4 p.m. on Saturday at The College of New Jersey.
“He's had a great season, and it really makes his high school year complete,’’ his father said. “To think he's the starting place kicker on a team playing for the state championship just adds another unbelievable final chapter.”
No matter what happens on Saturday, Starego will serve as a continuing inspiration to special needs athletes.
“As a parent, when the doctor says the word ‘autism,’ you always think the worst and that at best the future is unclear,’’ Ray Starego said. “Your child will achieve things that you thought were impossible. They will surprise you time and time again, so fight the urge to put a bubble around them and protect them at any cost. No matter how difficult it is, don't be afraid to let them go, and don't be afraid to let them fail because if they don't fail, they can't succeed. Anthony’s story is certainly not typical, but it clearly shows that anything is possible.”