Special Forces

Steamboat turns to special teams to win games

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Ben DeLine has the genetics. Now, he is developing the skill.

The Steamboat Springs sophomore is the son of former NFL and Colorado State University kicker Steve DeLine. And for anyone who has seen Ben DeLine kick for the Steamboat Springs football team this season, it is easy to see why he has the Sailors excited about this year and the future.

Through eight games, DeLine is 20-of-21 on his point after tries, as well as 5-of-10 on his field goal attempts, including two from 40 yards or beyond. In addition, he has seven touchbacks on kickoffs, which forces opponents to start from their own 20 and limits big returns.

But DeLine is just the beginning. He and sophomore Nigel Hammond have knocked in 50-yard field goals during practice with room to spare, quarterback and holder Tanner Stillwell said. At the lower levels, the coaches have found players willing to step up and be place-kickers, as well.

"We have a freshman who is kicking PATs (points after touchdowns)," Steamboat coach Aaron Finch said. "The eighth-grade team, we are kicking extra points, too. We have a little tradition going on. Typically, at those lower levels, you don't see that. A lot of that starts with Coach DeLine."

Steamboat's emphasis on special teams plays a big role, too. Junior punter Jace Bonner said the Sailors begin every practice on special teams. The team does live simulations so the kickers and returners get used to people coming at their faces.

"Special teams is important," senior returner Jack Serhant said. "When you get big plays off special teams, it kills the other team."

Ask Moffat County. Trailing, 10-0, in the final minute of the first half against the Bulldogs, the Sailors lined up for a 40-yard field goal, and DeLine made it. Steamboat went on to tie the game in the second half and eventually won in double overtime.

"The snap and the hold are just as important as the kick," DeLine said. "Make sure that gets in there."

Sure. Stillwell serves as the team's holder, and senior Vince Grippa serves as the team's long snapper, a role he has held for three years.

"He's been solid," Finch said about Grippa. "It's going to be hard breaking in a new one."

Eagle Valley coach John Ramunno has seen an increase in the number of talented kickers -- even in the Western Slope League. Against Battle Mountain, Ramunno thought the Huskies were bluffing when they lined up for a 52-yard field goal. They weren't, and they made it.

"I almost called a timeout to say, 'here's how we are going to handle the fake,'" Ramunno said. "Having a strong kicker is a great asset. You are seeing, with a lot of these kickers, kids who play soccer as young kids."

That's how DeLine got his start. He played soccer in the Front Range before starting football last season. Just like everyone on the team, he had to fight for his position this year.

"I've always been kind of a natural," DeLine said. "But we had uprights in the backyard."

If DeLine was predisposed to becoming a high school kicker, Bonner was just the opposite as a punter.

As freshmen, players try several positions, and Bonner took to punting. He became the punter late last year and held on to the position. This year, he is averaging 34.7 yards a punt, which is misleading because Bonner has gotten seven punts downed inside the opposition's 20-yard line.

"We feel he is a real diamond in the rough," Finch said. "His timing and consistency is getting better every week."

Bonner said he plans to focus on punting during the offseason. If he and DeLine improve, the Sailors will have a formidable kicking combination. DeLine and Bonner, combined with the emphasis Finch and special teams coach Mike Appel put on the return game and special teams coverage, gives Steamboat a decisive edge in special teams.

"We call it special forces," Finch said. "It is not an afterthought here. When you think about our early season games especially, half our wins, if not more, were outplaying teams on special teams."

Steamboat returns to the field for a 7 p.m. game Friday against Delta. Delta has not won a league game this season.

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley, call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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