When it comes to high school sports in the county, fancy footwork no longer is confined to the soccer field.
This fall showed that the kicking game has arrived in football, and it may be here to stay.
In the past the county occasionally has been blessed with a great kicker, like Glenelg's Jim Kantowski. He set a standard in 1988 by kicking a 54-yard field goal and is attending East Tennessee State on a football scholarship.
But the 1990 season, probably unlike any other in county history, saw an abundance of remarkable kicking and punting across the league.
Witness Mount Hebron senior Nathan Kealey, who set the tone for the season in its second week by erasing Kantowski's record with a 55-yard field goal against Perryville. He then went on to boot six of nine field goals -- including kicks from 45 and 41 yards -- for an astounding average of 37.3 yards per field goal.
Take Atholton's Joe Yankle. Coming off a brilliant junior year, he was 3-for-3 on field goals, 9-for-12 on extra points and averaged 53 yards per kickoff and 35.5 yards per punt.
The list goes on. Centennial senior Brian Reid was hurting opponents with his right foot for six weeks before an automobile injury forced him to miss the season's final month. Before he was injured, Reid had won two games with field goals, was 8-for-8 on extra points, had averaged 39.1 yards per punt and was a huge factor in the Eagles' 3-3 start.
Then there's Howard senior Scott Frye, who joined the Lions as a walk-on place-kicker shortly before the season. Although the Howard offense struggled often enough to keep Frye from being a steady factor, he managed to contribute 11 extra points in 12 attempts and kicked one field goal in three tries.
Even Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills -- which least needed a sound kicking game since they regularly outscored opponents by at least four touchdowns -- saw their junior kickers excel. The Wildecats' David Lubitz booted 43 of 48 extra points, and Ty Wilkins hit 39 of 42 extra points and added two field goals in three attempts for the Scorpions.
Why the sudden upsurge in kicking talent?
Numerous reasons -- ranging from the effect of soccer, to the age of specialization, to changing coaching philosophy -- account for it.
To put this year in perspective, consider this: As recently as five years ago, it was unusual for most high school teams to attempt an extra point rather than go for a two-point conversion after a touchdown. Field goals were mostly out of the question. Kicking was generally viewed as an afterthought.
"I can't even imagine anyone trying a 55-yard field goal years ago," said Atholton coach Don Van Deusen, a 17-year coach at Atholton. "I think it's become a more integral part of the game in the last four or five years. Now you get inside the 30 and you feel like you've got a shot at three points."
Last year, Yankle's kickoffs and punts figured as much in the Raiders' 8-2 season as the passing of Alex Pugliese and the Atholton defense. This year the Raiders won just three games, and Yankle's foot was in the middle of each. He beat Liberty with a 27-yard field goal, his extra points were the difference in a 15-14 victory over Glenelg, and the good field position he gave Atholton with his kickoffs and punts proved crucial in each victory.
"The only thing that's been consistent for us all season has been his kicking," Van Deusen said.
Steve Benninghove, Mount Hebron's five-year head coach, coached high school during the mid-1970s in Mississippi. There, kicking was stressed to the point where it was typical for teams to attempt long field goals.
Benninghove was surprised by the lack of attention kicking received when he first arrived in Howard County 12 years ago, but said he soon began to sense a change.
"Kickers became more glamorized in the pros and in college in the late '70s and early '80s. We began to see kickers getting college scholarships and getting drafted by the pros in the first round. That has trickled down," said Benninghove.
This year, Benninghove was blessed with the league's most versatile player in Kealey, who played quarterback and safety in addition to performing all kicking duties. Benninghove credits Kealey's results to extra practice with him and a University of Maryland kicking camp Kealey attended at his urging during the summer.
"I think it's a matter of emphasis and practice more than athletic ability," he added. "I'd rather have a great athlete like Nate, but I've seen kids who weren't very good football players become very good kickers.
Don't rule them out. If (they) can give me three or five points a game, I want them."
Soccer and specialization -- another reflection of the college and pro games -- also help explain the county's high level of kicking.