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Kickers/punters for rival Pinellas schools have been friends since third grade

Michael Hill and Cameron Mitchell have known each for as long as they can remember.

They both went to Brooker Creek Elementary School, where they were in the same third-grade class. They went to Tarpon Middle School, where they ran track together. They also each played club soccer.

And now they are considered two of the best football kickers and punters in the state.

But tonight Hill and Mitchell, both seniors, will be on opposite sidelines in one of the county's fiercest high school football rivalries when East Lake travels to Tarpon Springs for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.

"It feels like I need to show him up because when they did the ranking in the St. Petersburg Times, he was No. 1 and I was No. 4," said Mitchell, 17, who plays for East Lake. "There is definitely a little chip on my shoulder from that. Everything has to be perfect. I can't miss a field goal, all kickoffs have to be in the end zone and all my punts have to be good. I have to have a perfect game."

Tarpon Springs' Hill is looking for that same game. He said he is pleased that both he and Mitchell are having solid high school kicking careers.

"We grew up together, so it's pretty cool," said Hill, 17. "But it's Tarpon vs. East Lake. I hope he does well, but we are playing against each other. I want Tarpon to win and he wants East Lake to win, so we are going to do whatever it takes to win."

The Tarpon-East Lake rivalry was born when East Lake High opened in 1987. Many of the players attend elementary and middle school together before heading off to separate high schools

"Both schools gear up for this game," said Atif Austin, a former Tarpon Springs High standout running back now in his first season as the Spongers' head coach. "But our kicking is going to be important because it determines field position."

Bob Hudson, the Eagles head coach, agreed.

"It's huge and it can be a game changer," Hudson said of the kicking game. "We might need those three points and field position is very important in a tight game."

The quality of high school kicking has gotten considerably better, mostly because of the growth of soccer in America, said Rick Sang, director of Prokicker.com Academy, which runs kicking, punting and long snapping camps throughout the United States. Prokicker.com also ranks high school kickers nationally.

"Soccer helped open the door for a lot of young kickers," Sang said. "Young kids wanna grow up and be Emmitt Smith and Peyton Manning. But some have the ability to kick a football, which more resembles kicking a soccer ball. Once they get into it and progress and they realize that I'm a pretty good kicker."

But Sang said there's a lot pressure with the position.

"A quarterback might have 30 passes a game and go 19 for 30," Sang said. "A kicker might have five attempts. He has less attempts and less margin for error."

Mitchell started kicking the spring of his freshman year. He had played soccer for 11 years and thought kicking would be a good fit.

"During the spring season, they were doing tryouts for kickers and punters and I was the best one there," Mitchell said. "I was surprised.

Mitchell then started going to kicking camps. He stopped playing soccer and focused on football. While he is a solid field goal kicker, his strength is punting. Prokicker.com ranks him ninth in the state as punter/kicker combo.

Mitchell had some good fortune when veteran NFL punter Mark Royals saw him kick at a game and offered to give him instruction.

"You don't see that raw talent often and he had it," said Royals, now a football analyst for Bright House Sports Network.

Hill started kicking when he was in the third grade. Playing flyweight football, the coach wanted to know if he could kick a field goal because he played soccer. He's been kicking ever since.

Hill has attended camps all over the country. Prokicker.com ranks Hill as the 12th-best kicker in the country and the third-best in the state in his recruiting class. He is ranked the fifth-best kicker/punter combo in the state.

"I've worked really hard," said Hill, who, too, dropped soccer to concentrate on kicking. "I'm trying to be up there and hard work pays off. It's paying off for me right now."

Hill said he can handle the pressure a kicker is under.

"We only get a few chances and all eyes are on you," Hill said. "We only get that one kick. We hit it, we are going to be hero. If we miss, we will be known for the miss. You have to perform when you step out on the field."

All eyes will be on the kickers Friday night. But win or lose, beyond the gridiron, things will remain the same.

"Off the field, we are nice and friendly to one another," Mitchell said. "East Lake and Tarpon players are friends off the field. But once you get on the field, you really can't have friends."

Contact Demorris A. Lee at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.

About this series

This is the third in a series called Beyond the gridiron, in which reporter Demorris A. Lee takes a look at East Lake High's football program from different perspectives. This week, the focus is on two players who grew up together but will be on opposite sidelines as kickers tonight for arch-rivals East Lake and Tarpon Springs.

This week's game

East Lake at Tarpon Springs, 7:30 tonight.

Follow all the action at tampabay.com/hometeam and watch it on Friday Night Rewind.

Kickers/punters for rival Pinellas schools have been friends since third grade 09/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 8:17pm]
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