A high school kicker who can routinely make field goals from more than 50 yards away – and who made one from beyond 70 yards in practice. An offensive lineman standing 6-feet-3.5-inches and 321 pounds. Sounds like potential Division 1-A football talent, don’t you think?
The Rancho Mirage football team saw its two most impactful players in the program’s short history sign their national letters of intent Wednesday afternoon in front of more than 100 friends, family members, teammates, and school faculty members, marking the first time the Rattlers will send football players to the NCAA level.
But coach L.D. Matthews thinks UC Davis, a Division 1-AA program, and Azusa Pacific, a Division 2 school, got away like bandits with kicker and punter Daniel Whelan and offensive lineman Jonny Avila, respectively.
“Both these schools got such a steal. In my mind, Daniel and Jonny are both Division 1-A players,” Matthews said. “It’s just the Coachella Valley is such a small area, and it’s pretty hard for kids to earn scholarships and earn the recognition they deserve.”
For both players to have simply made it to the college level is an impressive feat, though, considering where they started. Both Avila and Whelan didn’t play football as freshmen, and Whelan was still practicing for his upcoming soccer season the fall of his sophomore year.
And for both of them to turn those shortened high school careers into opportunities at the next level, when plenty of deserving football players who have been competing since their Pop Warner level days have to hang it up once they graduate from high school without an offer to their name, Matthews hopes the other student athletes in attendance take notice.
“It shows a lot of kids you can start later, even if you don’t have experience,” Matthews said. “They also show that your grades are as much, if not more important, than what you do on the field. These two guys would not be going where they are if it wasn’t for their academics.”
READ MORE: Four Palm Desert soccer players sign NLIs
UC Davis Football (@UCDfootball) February 01, 2017
Whelan made waves this past summer by winning the Stanford kicking camp, a highly-touted event that brings in the top talent in the country to compete. He finished this season just 8 for 16 on field goals, but most of those misses came from beyond 50 yards with his coaches attempting field goals most high school kickers can’t even dream of.
Though he didn’t end up in the caliber of program he may have deserved, he said he found the perfect fit. Whelan plans to go to school for animal science, and UC Davis holds one of the top programs for that in the country
“They took care of me there and treated me like I was their own, and I really like that family feeling,” he said. “It felt like Rancho Mirage, and that made me want to go there.”
Avila said he’s most excited to learn from one of the NFL’s best offensive linemen of all-time in the Cougars’ offensive line coach Jackie Slater, who was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame after a 20-year career with the Rams that included playing in 18 playoff games, seven Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl.
“This was a very long process, and I talked to a lot of people who are older and wiser than me, and it comes down to the options you have. I’ve been a guy that if I work hard at things, I’ll give myself options, and I’m fortunate enough to have the option to go to Azusa Pacific,” he said. “I’ve only been playing for three years, and he (Slater) can push me to a level I haven’t even thought about.”
APU Football (@apufootball) February 01, 2017