Garden City's Norton is a kicker extraordinaire
Adam Sandler's late-'90s comedy song poked fun at place-kickers, saying they aren't respected members of a football team. Ryan Norton, Garden City's junior kicker, is not lumped into that category. All the Trojans know this Saturday's Long Island Championship game against Bellport could sway on the pendulum of his right leg.
Why? Because that's exactly what happened last season.
Having never kicked a field goal at the varsity level, he was 15 years old when he trotted on the field at Hofstra and nailed a 38-yarder to give Garden City the 2009 Long Island Class II title with a 9-6 win over North Babylon.
"Everyone was probably wondering why we did it," Garden City coach Tom Flatley said about his choice to use a rookie kicker. "Ryan's range was greater than our regular kicker. It wasn't much of a major decision to make."
This season, Norton hasn't just established himself on his own team, but also on the Island. Norton is 42-of-45 on extra points, including a school-record 38 in a row, and 7-for-8 on field goals. His longest was a 40-yarder against Calhoun in the first round of the playoffs, and his three FGs that day are a Nassau playoff record.
He had one extra point blocked, and his two other misses came at Hofstra, where the goalposts are nearly five feet narrower than a normal high-school field (NCAA and pro goalposts are 18 feet, 6 inches wide; high school posts are 23 feet, 4 inches).
"With them, if you turn the ball over inside the 25-, 30-yard line, it's a sure three points," said Calhoun coach Joe Bianca. "He's ice, man. A lot of people take it for granted."
Not Garden City. With a ball-control offense that may be without running back Brian Fischer (concussion) on Saturday, and one of the best defenses on the Island (73 points allowed in 11 games), Norton is a valuable weapon not only kicking extra points and field goals, but also punting and on kickoffs. He averaged 33.5 yards on his 35 punts this season and set another school record with 38 touchbacks on kickoffs.
In the last two games, he's placed five punts inside the 20, including a 49-yard beauty to the Carey 3-yard line last week.
"I could kick it pretty well from a good distance," the reserved Norton said. "It helps with field position kicking in the end zone a few times, but kicking field goals is always more fun because of the points."
And, yes, even the shy Norton has the eccentricity often associated with the position. After he missed an extra point last week, captain Stephen Jahelka said Norton started talking to himself on the sidelines.
"We always make fun of him because he's kind of nuts," Jahelka added jokingly. "It's great to finally see him get the recognition he deserves."
How did Norton get so good? With a very solid support system led by Hofstra football's all-time leading scorer Dave Ettinger, a member of Flatley's staff who directs the special teams.
"He's done a lot on his own, but for me being there, it's like an ex-quarterback helping a quarterback instead of someone who's never played the position," Ettinger said. "He's got a fast-twitch muscle fiber. He gets to the ball quick."
Listed at 5-10, 160 pounds, Norton doesn't have the tree-trunk legs common in most kickers, so generating leg speed is crucial for getting distance on his kicks. Even still, Norton said he could hit from about 50 yards out "depending on which way the wind is going."
Norton also receives instruction from Chris Koepplin, a St. Anthony's grad who kicked at UMass. And in an ironic twist, Ryan's father Mike befriended someone who knows kicking quite well - Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff - before Ryan even became a kicker.
Westhoff, who follows Ryan's exploits, set the youngster up with former NFL punter Louie Aguiar in June, and the two worked together exclusively for three days in St. Louis.
There, Norton learned that most quality high-school punters have between 3.3 and 3.5 seconds of hang time, but he was timed at more than 4.0 seconds. Anyone who sees Norton kick instantly notices the height of his punts.
On Saturday, he hopes to lift Garden City to that same level.