Carmel's Steven O'Block is one of the prominent place-kickers in Lake County this season.
Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer
It was raining.
And 47 long, long yards separated Steven O'Block from 3 points.
The ball was snapped, held in place and O'Block blasted the ball with a kick so swift that it was like he was trying to, well, knock someone's block off.
A funny thing happened when the referees in the end zone raised their arms and signaled a field goal for the Carmel kicker.
"No one jumped up and down, no one high-fived him," Carmel coach Andy Bitto said of the field goal O'Block made two weeks ago against Notre Dame. "I told the other guys, 'You can go high-five (O'Block). He just hit a 47-yard field goal in the rain.
"But it's like no big deal anymore, I guess. O'Block is hitting 50-yarders in practice. He's 5-of-5 on field goals in games and four of them are 40-plus yarders.
"It's to the point now that hitting 40-yarders is just what he does and it's what everyone is expecting him to do."
Long field goals aren't usually so routine, nor are they so nonchalantly expected at the high school level. In fact, some high school teams can't always count on their kickers to make their extra points.
That's what makes the kicking situation in Lake County so unusual this season.
O'Block isn't the only kicker of his kind.
There are quite a few kickers most notably Mike Leiva at Lake Zurich, George Gonzalez at Antioch, Matt Micucci at Stevenson, Jon Gurchak at Grayslake Central and Tanner Blain at Lakes who are consistently knocking in long field goals, booming punts and drilling kickoffs out of the end zone, or at least deep into enemy territory.
** Leiva's best game came against Warren when he booted four field goals, with a long of 40 yards. He's also perfect on his extra points and has 6 touchbacks so far this season.
** Gonzalez does all of Antioch's kicking. In fact, he leads the area in net average for punts. His late fourth quarter field goal was the difference in last week's 10-7 victory over Vernon Hills.
** Besides playing quarterback for Stevenson, Micucci does all of Stevenson's kicking and is getting Division I looks because of his strong, accurate leg. He hit a 40-yard field goal against Glenbrook South earlier this season and his field goal in double overtime last week gave the Patriots a dramatic win over Warren.
** Gurchak has boomed 9 touchbacks, handles the punting and has a long punt of 56 yards. His longest field goal of the season so far is 32 yards.
** Blain's punts have so much hang time that opponents have yet to return one this season. He's got 3 field goals and all are from more than 30 yards out.
So is this just a unique bumper crop of kickers? Or is this the start of a trend in which kickers everywhere are about to rise up and become more relevant than ever?
Are kicking skills improving to that point?
Coaches can only hope so. A competent and reliable kicker seems to be on everyone's wish list.
"It seems like kicking is being more and more emphasized and that's good for us," Grayslake Central coach Nick Goshe said. "For a high school offense to have to drive 80 yards every time for a score, that's tough. But if you can cross over the 50 and then quickly be a threat to kick a field goal, that's big.
"You've got options when you've got a really good kicker."
Speaking of, let's get to know some of Lake County's very best kickers:
Futbol, then football
Like many kids in the suburbs, Steven O'Block grew up playing soccer.
"I think I started when I was 4 or 5," O'Block said. "I really liked soccer."
O'Block discovered recently that he might like football even more.
Last year, he split his time in the fall between the Carmel soccer and football teams. Flipping back and forth was easier than he thought it would be.
"I've been able to apply most of the things I learned in soccer to football," O'Block said. "Like, when you want to make a really powerful kick in soccer, you don't use the side of your foot, you use your laces, the top of your foot. You do the same thing when you kick a football."
O'Block has also gotten a lot of power from planting himself in the weight room. With a college football scholarship a very real possibility, O'Block decided to concentrate on all things football this past summer.
"I was in the weight room a lot, doing plyos and all that and I think I got a lot stronger," O'Block said. "I also went to three camps. If you want to be a good kicker, practice, practice, practice is my best advice."
Um, I'll do it
When George Gonzalez arrived at Antioch as a freshman, his football team had a problem.
No one knew how to kick.
Gonzalez had never kicked before. And his soccer background consisted of one season as a 6-year-old.
"But I said I would do it," Gonzalez said. "I thought it would be fun."
Gonzalez has been a kicker (among other things) for his teams at Antioch ever since.
"It took a lot of practice at first, especially on the field goals. I wasn't sure where to kick the ball," said Gonzalez, who also stars on offense (running back) and defense (cornerback) for the Sequoits. "But I just kept working at it. I wanted to step up because I like being a playmaker."
One of Gonzalez's most poignant moments as a kicker came when he didn't make the play.
Gonzalez, Antioch's back-up kicker last season, was thrust into the pressure cooker when starting kicker Vinnie Holm went down with an injury late in the season. The Sequoits were in the midst of overtime in their first round playoff game against Crystal Lake Central when Gonzalez got the call to attempt a field goal.
"I missed it," Gonzalez said. "The field goal would have given us the lead in overtime. They wound up kicking a field goal and beat us by three points.
"That was the worst feeling I've ever had and I decided that I never wanted to feel like that again."
So Gonzalez threw himself into kicking practice. He works on kicking in the off-season and stays late after every team practice to kick field goals.
His longest field goal in practice is 55 yards.
"There really aren't a lot of drills you can do to be a good kicker. You just have to go out and kick," Gonzalez said. "And keep your head down. That's the other big thing. If my head comes up, I usually mess up."
It's about the arm and the leg
What kind of punter hopes his punting stats are negligible?
The kind of punter who is also a starting quarterback, like Matt Micucci.
He's trying to avoid punting at all costs.
"If you get sacked or something else happens on third down, you don't really want to have to go back out there and punt," Micucci said with a bit of a laugh. "But I've always been a kicker and I've always been a quarterback so I'm used to it."
Micucci's role with the Patriots last year wasn't quite as pronounced since he was a seldom-used back-up quarterback. Now, he rarely leaves the field.
"It can be tiring but I want to be on the field," Micucci said. "I love the fact that I'm a football player first and not just a kicker."
But it's kicking that could lead to bigger and better things for Micucci. He spent the summer going to multiple Division I kicking camps as well as a national showcase. He's getting some serious looks.
"I'd love to go to somewhere like Northwestern or Illinois or Vanderbilt or Penn. Those are the schools on my list," Micucci said. "I'm 5-foot-11, so I'm probably not tall enough to play quarterback at schools like that. But I could kick."
It's all mental, baby
Kicking a field goal is just like shooting a free throw for Tanner Blain.
Blain, who also stars on the Lakes' basketball team, says that kicking is simply an exercise in mental toughness.
"It's 99 percent mental for me," Blain said. "I've practice the actual kicking part of it so much, I've got that down. Whether or not I make it is really just mental.
"I've worked on really focusing, on staying really calm, on tuning out the fans in the stands."
In fact, Blain can't even hear the encouraging cheers anymore.
"My dad was telling me that one time people in the stands were chanting my name and I was like, 'I didn't hear a thing,'" Blain said. "When I kick, I am so checked in to what I'm doing and that really helps me.
"I haven't always been like that. I've worked at it. It takes some time."
Blain developed his kicking skills over time as well.
He played soccer from first through seventh grade.
"I think soccer players make the best kickers," Blain said. "You just have a natural instinct for kicking the ball."
Blain is hoping to keep kicking the ball all the way to college. He performed well at a couple of camps and showcases this past summer.
"Recruiting is different for kickers," Blain said. "You almost have to be perfect to earn that spot on a college team. I just have to keep practicing. The good thing is, most games I get to practice my kicking a lot because we score so many touchdowns."