From The Pitch To Friday Nights
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Oct 2, 2013, 09:07
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
HOPEWELL — Thinking outside conventional thought is something that’s easily noticeable when one watches Blue Devils’ head coach Ricky Irby operate his team on a daily basis.
Irby takes calculated gambles other coaches won’t even consider, showing his team the amount of confidence he has in them. So it should be no surprise when Irby, in the middle of a hunt for a kicker, did not find one in a conventional place.
Instead of seeing an athlete practicing kicks on their own, Irby looked to Hopewell’s own soccer team, specifically Zack Hipps. He knew right away Hipps possessed all the tools to have success on the football field.
“I had him in class a couple of years ago and I knew he was a soccer player, a good kid, so I convinced him to come out and kick for us,” Irby said. “I think the more comfortable he gets kicking the football, the more confidence he gets in himself and that’s a big part of kicking.”
But it’s something Hipps never even thought he would do.
While Hipps would be in the stands and watch football games, sometimes wondering if he could kick himself, it was never in his mind. For Hipps, soccer is first.
It’s the sport he had exhibited the most passion for, but when Irby asked him if he would like to try to be the Hopewell kicker, he didn’t hesitate in taking the invitation. It helped that Hipps’ friends were some of the previous kickers before he took to the field.
“He came to me over the summer and explained that he was losing his kickers, some of my friends, and asked me if I was kicking,” Hipps said of the encounter. “I said sure I’ll try. Told my mom about it and she really wanted me to continue and I started to really like it.”
The lights. The excitement. The idea of being one of the key pieces on a really good team. It was enough to make a convert out of Hipps.
However, Hipps did not immediately become the type of kicker he is over night. In the beginning, it was not exactly something to be noticed for its beauty. Hard work and determination had to take place or Hopewell might have been searching for another new kicker.
But the soccer standout turned football player worked on his craft. He learned the differences between kicking the ball off and the art of field goal kicking.
He learned the mental side of the game is just as big as the physical.
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
It all has accumulated into a perfect season thus far — nine-for-nine on extra-point attempts and a 30 plus yard field goal nailed.
“He’s really worked hard and he’s a really dependable kicker,” Irby said. “He’s just gotten better and better each week. Last year was the first year he’s ever kicked a football.”
It’s something lineman and long snapper Eric McPhearson could not stop talking about during Hopewell’s game against Thomas Dale last week.
“He’s come a long way since last year,” McPhearson said.
And perhaps it’s most evident on the kick-offs, and not just for his sheer
power, but the accuracy in the way he can place the kicks where he wants.
That ability comes from his constant work from kicking off a tee, blasting ball after ball toward a receiver right in front of him.
The work has paid off both for him and for the Blue Devils as the length on his kick offs gives the coverage team the ability to get down the field to clog up the lanes and stop the returner for minimal gains.
“It’s very important,” Irby said of having a kicker with length on their kick-offs. “As far as we can pin them back to get our coverage down there, it makes all the difference in world. Not just pinning them down deep, but Zack’s such a good kicker he can squib and pooch it as well.”
And while Hipps does his job well, rarely allowing an opposing team’s returner gain significant yardage on their returns, he sometimes yearns to show his teammates he’s not just a kicker and can land a big tackle.
“Sometimes I feel really confident, especially on kick-offs, and I think I hope he gets by so I can make the tackle,” he said. “But then I quickly think, I better not.”
While Hipps most likely won’t be making an open-field tackle in the future, his kicks will continue to pin opponents deep in their own zone and give his own team a confidence boost, knowing they have a dependable kicker at their disposal.