The word people use most frequently to describe Clinton Township Chippewa Valley’s Stefan Claiborne is special.
Certainly the 6-foot-2, 170-pound senior is a speedy receiver who is a threat to score every time he catches the ball.
And Claiborne’s best position is on the other side of the line of scrimmage — at safety — where he plays the run and pass with equal aplomb.
But Claiborne is special because he puts the special in special teams.
Seven times last season when the opposing team lined up to attempt a punt, field goal or extra point, the play ended with Claiborne getting a hand on the ball and blocking the kick.
Claiborne is successful on special teams because he understands how much special teams can influence a game’s outcome.
“Oh, it’s huge,” Claiborne said of special-teams play. “My linebackers coach — Coach (Don) Preiss — is a numbers guy, he’s big on numbers. All over the weight room he has stats for special teams. If you win two of the three phases of the game, you’re more than likely going to win, so we take special teams really, really seriously.”
Nobody takes them more seriously than Claiborne, who has made a science of blocking kicks.
There is much more to Claiborne’s success than speed. He consistently runs 4.5 for 40 yards, but a lot of guys who run 4.5 don’t get off the line of scrimmage as quickly.
“Coming off the ball, I would say I’m pretty quick,” he said. “I just look at the ball. I stare at the ball, and as soon I see it move, I go. I use my stride to get to the ball.”
Getting to the ball is the first thing, but blocking the ball is another. The third factor is making sure you don’t run into the kicker, negating the play and giving the opponent a first down.
“To prevent it, I lean,” Claiborne said. “I don’t run straight into it. When I come in to block a punt, I tweak my body a certain way. I keep my eye on it, and I dive for it, and I end up rolling on the ground.”
As a sophomore, Claiborne blocked three kicks. While he is an equal opportunity kick blocker, he knows all blocks are not created equal.
“Hmm, I’d have to say a field goal,” he said of his favorite kick to block. “Well, a field goal is three points automatically if they make it. A punt block might be a little better field position, but a field goal you’re taking away three points.”
It was a single point Claiborne took away last season that proved to be the biggest block of his life.
It came in the district final against archrival Macomb Dakota, which had beaten Chippewa Valley 15 consecutive times, including six in the playoffs and a 42-21 thumping in Week 2 last season.
The Big Reds led Dakota, 28-21, when Dakota scored a touchdown with 2:53 left to pull within an extra point of sending the game into overtime.
“I didn’t want to lose in overtime on a fluke with the refs or something,” Claiborne said. “I told myself: ‘OK, it’s now or never. I’ve got to get this. I want to end the game right here.’ “
Claiborne blocked the extra point attempt and proved again how special special teams can be in a game.
Meet the Big Reds
Last season: 8-4.
Top players: WR/DB Stefan Claiborne, QB Patrick Briningstool, DE Nicco Moroso, OT Jon Anderson, WR/DB Stanley Williams.
Overall state playoff record: 19-14.
Coach: Scott Merchant, 13th season, seventh at Chippewa Valley (84-69).
Overview: There are 40 seniors on this veteran team that could advance far in the Division 1 playoffs. Briningstool passed for more than 1,800 yards and 27 TDs with only six interceptions last season. He has a game-breaker in Claiborne, who also is a dominating safety. If teams double up on Claiborne, Williams is talented enough to make them pay. Last year’s defense was young and injury-prone and should be much improved.