Sarah VanderHeuvel said she probably wouldn’t have tuned in to watch the Division 4 state football championship game a year ago had her former Michigan Gators teammate, Olivia Viney, not been playing.
There’s a chance that without having seen Viney excel for Marine City, VanderHeuvel wouldn’t be spending the fall season as she is, kicking extra points and field goals for Port Huron Northern.
“It helped a lot knowing that a girl already did it,” VanderHeuvel said. “They won a state championship last year. That’s awesome.”
Viney is far from the first female to kick for her high school team, and she wasn’t the only one to be doing it a year ago in the Blue Water Area. But she was the first female to start in a state championship game in Michigan, and she set a state championship game record by nailing all seven of her extra point attempts.
This season, Viney is one of three area girls who will be kicking for her high school team, joined by VanderHeuvel and Marlette’s Mackenzie Kelly. All three are seniors and among the top girls soccer players in the area.
“A lot of girls ask me what it’s like,” Viney said. “They just want to know what it’s like to be one of the boys. They don’t ask me about joining, they just ask to know what the experience is.”
Viney describes the experience as a great one, and not just because of her record-setting performances. She has said multiple times that the support of her teammates, coaches and the community was what helped her through the season the most.
That’s something that, at least early on, the other two are seeing, as well.
“All of the coaches and everyone on the team has been really supportive,” VanderHeuvel said. “It’s been really nice.”
All three girls will only be handling extra point and field goal duties and not kicking off. That takes away some of the fear of them getting injured.
“(Marlette cross country coach Chris Titus) was a little surprised, but he didn’t care if I just did extra points and field goals,” said Kelly, a three-sport star at Marlette (cross country, basketball and soccer). “(Basketball coach Cathy) Storm actually supported it. But they were all afraid of me getting hurt.”
Kelly said she was aware of Viney, but that Viney’s success from a year ago didn’t play into her decision to come out for the team. She was actually approached to try it in early August, as Marlette has to replace a very consistent kicker in Ian Reagin.
“Someone said Marlette might need a kicker, so I went up there and practiced and tried,” she said. “It’s a bit different. I’m used to keeping the ball on the ground.”
Northern coach Pat Connell said he was very pleased with the way VanderHeuvel has been kicking in practice, adding that she recently made a 35-yarder in a simulated pressure situation. As it turns out, that’s how she prefers it.
“I don’t mind when we line up and they come at me,” she said. “I feel like I kick better when they do. I have to try to get it over them to not get blocked.”
While VanderHeuvel and Kelly are getting acclimated to a new sport, Viney has been able to focus on honing her craft. Although, it was pretty honed a year ago when she made a school record 61 extra points, missing just four. She was a First-Team All-Blue Water Area selection.
“My mindset is different,” she said. “I’m not so worried about trying to gain the support of the community,” she said. “I know I have the support of everyone, so now it’s trying to be consistent so I never miss a field goal.”
Viney believes we could see more female soccer players joining football teams, as their season is in the spring, while the boys’ season runs at the same time as football season. That’s something that Viney didn’t influence, but don’t be surprised to see more area girls opt for shoulder pads and a helmet in the future because of her, even if that’s something she never expected to inspire in the first place.
“When I moved up to varsity, I thought I would just go out there and kick some extra points,” Viney said. “I’ve been told there’s been seven girls signed up for junior football this year. Girls want me to sign their T-shirts and their copies of Sports Illustrated (Viney was featured in the magazine’s Faces in the Crowd).
“It was mostly after the state championship game, that’s when a lot of the outside of Marine City attention started coming, from different schools and different states. Even though the season had ended, it really didn’t end for another couple months.”