While the rest of the Riverhead High School football players were spread out in separate groups, working on their position-specific drills Monday morning, R.J. Kocan was off to the side doing his own thing by himself. He kicked field goals, punted and worked on kickoffs.
A kicker’s life can be a lonely one sometimes, huh?
Well, truth be told, Kocan isn’t well-suited to answer that question. After all, Monday, the first day of preseason practice, was his first official day as a kicker/punter. The freshman with the soccer background has no previous football experience whatsoever, unless you count the time he has spent this summer working with a private coach, former Stony Brook University kicker Luke Gaddis.
Now Kocan is a two-sport athlete. He will play soccer as well as football.
Despite his newness to kicking footballs, Kocan looked promising, kicking wet, heavy footballs while rain fell for much of the practice.
So, how did it go?
“It feels good,” Kocan said. “The helmet sometimes can be a little annoying.”
As with many kickers, Kocan can thank his soccer roots for the opportunity it has brought him in football. “I started out playing goalkeeper when I was 4, so I have a nice kick,” he said. Now Kocan plays as a center midfielder in soccer.
But it’s his football-kicking ability that the football Blue Waves are most interested in. Kocan said the longest field goal he has kicked traveled 47 yards, he can punt the ball 50 to 60 yards, and can send kickoffs landing inside the 10-yard line.
“If he can do that for real, he’s on the varsity,” said coach Leif Shay, who did not get a chance to watch Kocan’s workout and has never seen him kick.
Riverhead special teams coach Bill Hedges, who met Kocan for the first time Monday, liked what he saw.
“This was the first day that I had a chance, really, to work with R.J.,” Hedges said. “He has a lot of talent. He does a lot of things really well. He’s young. We’re hoping that we can get him out on the field often. So far, so good.”
Special teams can be overlooked and underappreciated in high school football.
“It’s probably the most underrated thing, but there’s so much that you gain from it,” Shay said. “You know, field position is huge with the kicking game. We’ve won a lot of games with our kicking game and we’ve lost a lot of games with our kicking game.”
Last year Riverhead went 3-5, an improvement from the 1-7 of 2016. Regardless, the Blue Waves still finished in ninth place in Suffolk County Division II, one place shy of a playoff spot.
Riverhead lost 25 players to graduation and have 10 seniors. A modest total of 63 players combined for both the varsity and JV teams turned out for the opening practice.
“This is it. What you see is what you get,” Shay said. “Football takes a lot of commitment. It takes a lot of time and a lot of people are not willing to do that. We’re not going to lower the bar for what we expect out of our kids. We’re going to take kids that want to rise up.”
Kocan, in the meantime, is getting a kick out of football.
Photo caption: R.J. Kocan, a freshman soccer player who never played football before, working on his kickoffs during Monday morning’s practice. (Credit: Bob Liepa)