Pair of Rancho Mirage football players sign letters of intent

Pair of Rancho Mirage football players sign letters of intent

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Pair of Rancho Mirage football players sign letters of intent

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.

Jonny Avail (left) and Daniel Whelan, teammates on the Rancho Mirage football team, both signed their national letters of intent Wednesday to play college football next fall.

Jonny Avail (left) and Daniel Whelan, teammates on the Rancho Mirage football team, both signed their national letters of intent Wednesday to play college football next fall.

“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.”

READ MORE: Palm Springs’ Damion Lee headed to the Pac-12

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

READ MORE: Four La Quinta student-athletes headed to play in college

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.

Rancho Mirage kicker Daniel Whelan kicks a field goal after practice on Wednesday, September 7, 2016 at Rancho Mirage High School. Whelan missed a 65-yard field goal by a few feet last Friday almost beating the NFL record of 64-yard.

Rancho Mirage kicker Daniel Whelan kicks a field goal after practice on Wednesday, September 7, 2016 at Rancho Mirage High School. Whelan missed a 65-yard field goal by a few feet last Friday almost beating the NFL record of 64-yard.

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.”

Rancho Mirage High School lineman Jonnathan Avila at practice on Wednesday, November 30, 2016.

Rancho Mirage High School lineman Jonnathan Avila at practice on Wednesday, November 30, 2016.

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.”

Jonnathan Avila

Jonnathan Avila

Daniel Whelan

Daniel Whelan

Daniel Whelan of Rancho Mirage High School kicks a extra point during their CIF post-season game against Los Amigos High School at home.

Daniel Whelan of Rancho Mirage High School kicks a extra point during their CIF post-season game against Los Amigos High School at home.

Rancho Mirage's Johnny Avila is selected to The Desert Sun's Elite 11 list.

Rancho Mirage’s Johnny Avila is selected to The Desert Sun’s Elite 11 list.

Rancho Mirage kicker Daniel Whelan signed his national letter of intent Wednesday to play football for UC Davis.

Rancho Mirage kicker Daniel Whelan signed his national letter of intent Wednesday to play football for UC Davis.

Jonny Avila signed his national letter of intent to play college football at Azusa Pacific.

Jonny Avila signed his national letter of intent to play college football at Azusa Pacific.

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