A-K Valley college football preview: Area kickers share bond at next level
Nick Bisceglia experienced the biggest joy of a college kicker in his first game as a college kicker.
As Robert Morris drove the ball downfield late in a tie game in its 2017 season opener against Dayton, the Colonials coaches asked the freshman which hash mark he preferred to kick from. The Kiski Area graduate got his chance to become a hero, and he came through, booting a 26-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to give RMU a 13-10 victory.
“I would say it lived up to the hype, just hitting the ball, and the sideline explodes; everyone on the field explodes; the crowd explodes,” Bisceglia said. “It’s just like that picture-perfect moment you always imagine.”
Of course, to turn a phrase, kicking ain’t easy. A kicker can go from a hero one moment to a goat the next. And with a greater emphasis on special teams in college football, it puts a bigger spotlight on players in those positions.
“It’s like a business up here,” said Slippery Rock junior kicker/punter Jake Chapla, a Plum graduate. “Every day is a work day, especially when you’re striving to win a championship like my team is. You have to bring the attitude that you’re there to work hard, and you’re there to win that championship every single day. You have to have that championship attitude every single day.”
A handful of Alle-Kiski Valley alumni are alive and kicking in college: Buffalo’s Adam Mitcheson (Kiski Area) and Bisceglia at the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision levels, respectively; Chapla and Slippery Rock freshman Jackson Gildea (Plum) in Division II; and Saint Vincent’s Sam Elliott (Highlands) and Washington & Jefferson’s Jake Sarver (Freeport) in Division III.
Many of them met through working with Jon Bouchat at Highlands’ Golden Rams Stadium during their high school days, and they stay in touch and still work together in the offseason.
“The A-K Valley, I consider a breeding ground for kickers and punters,” Elliott said. “We all just want to see each other succeed. It’s a weird thing because before games, most people are talking smack and things like that. I go up and have conversations with the kickers from the other teams.
“We all go through a very similar struggle. We all have that kind of weight on our shoulders at all time, and I think we know what each other is going through. We know the mentality it takes. We know the ridicule we get. And we know the work it takes to be a high-level college kicker, or even a high-level high school kicker or kicker in general. It kind of does build this brotherhood.”
Mitcheson said he expected greater pressure in college, but maybe not to the level it reaches.
“I remember my freshman year, I had a pretty good season ... and I missed a kick in a game, and I remember getting off the field, looking at my phone and seeing Twitter and everything, people calling me names and whatnot,” he said. “That’s definitely an adjustment, but you’ve got to learn to block those things out.”
Mitcheson has the added difficulty of kicking in Buffalo, often dealing with cold, windy and snowy conditions.
“You’re either good from 70, or the other way you’re good from 30,” he said.
But those types of challenges make the game-winners all the more special, he added. The Kiski Area graduate ranks second in Buffalo history with 39 made field goals.
Bisceglia, who didn’t play football until his junior year at Kiski Area, said the speed of the college game is the biggest difference from high school, but the mental part isn’t far behind.
“In college, especially at the Division I level, special teams (and) the kicking game plays a huge part in the outcome,” he said. “It’s kind of working through that. For me, especially early on in the season, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and didn’t feel like myself. Probably halfway through, I was like, you’ve just got to enjoy it. It’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun.”
Chapla said he doesn’t focus on pressure, instead envisioning himself “making key plays.” That worked perfectly last season, when he made the winning field goal in Slippery Rock’s overtime victory over Cal (Pa.). An all-conference kicker and punter for The Rock, Chapla said he has to stay ready to contribute at all times.
“They’re big momentum plays, special teams,” he said. “They’re either going to go in your favor, or they’re not going to go in your favor. A lot of that lies on the kicker, whether they’re going to have a good kickoff, place it where the team needs it to be placed, putting that out of the end zone for a touchback so there’s no return ... every time the field-goal unit goes on the field, those are points that need to be on the board.”
That’s why Mitcheson said his greatest focus before his senior season was improving his consistency.
″(I’m) not really big trying to get stronger because I don’t have that many 50-yard field goals,” he said. “If I’m perfect inside of 42, that’s more important for me than saying I can go out there and hit a (60-yarder).”
Elliott said he believes he has improved through his college career and is hoping for a strong final season.
″(Pressure can be) a weight on your shoulders that I know most kickers have a problem with, but at the end of the day I try to kick the ball between those two yellow posts and call it a day,” Elliott said. “As long as I can do that, I’m good.”