Recreational soccer provided a solid foundation for three metro area athletes and their efforts as kickers.
Louie Gatlin of Jackson, Landon McGee of Ridgeland and Scott Swalley III of Ridgeland found their athletic footing when they were just youngsters having fun kicking a soccer ball and went on to develop their skills as members of a select team.
On Friday nights, each one kicks off a game and stands ready to score field goals for a rival high school team: Gatlin for Jackson Prep, McGee for Madison-Ridgeland Academy and Swalley for Jackson Academy.
Robert Wilson, who covered high school sports in the Jackson metro area for more than two decades for The Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News and now for Mississippi Scoreboard, considers Gatlin, McGee and Swalley three of the best kickers that compete at the highest level of the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools.
“Their success is a result of their work ethic and dedication to kicking,” he said. “It is pretty cool that these three young men competed against each other on the soccer field years ago and now are facing each other on the football field.”
McGee, Gatlin and Swalley played recreational soccer at Jackson Futball Club and then for Rush, a competitive team. “We all decided to be kickers around the same time,” said McGee, son of Allison and Wint McGee.
Men’s soccer is a common path for kickers, said Michele Tharp, administrative director for the Jackson Futball Club and club administrator for Rush.
“Soccer gives them a little bit of an edge,” she said. “It makes for precise kickers.”
Some high school men’s soccer players transition to become kickers because college football offers more scholarships, Tharp said. Not all colleges have men’s soccer teams.
Flexibility, coordination, good balance and a routine that results in consistent, effective kicks are important. So is staying calm under pressure, knowing that the expertise gained from attending special camps and the hours of practice to perfect technique will pay off.
McGee, who also plays on the men’s varsity soccer team at MRA, said it’s important to focus and tune out any noise when called in to kick.
“You have to cancel everything out and pretend like you’re the only one on the field,” he said. “I pretend like no one is watching me.”
Swalley, the son of Alyson and Scott Swalley Jr., considers the job a kicker akin to that of a sniper.
“We have one job and one shot to go out there and execute it,” he said. “We have to be spot on. You don’t have any re-takes.”
Swalley, who also punts for JA, finds the pressure during game energizing.
“When I’m out there kicking, I can’t hear a single thing people are saying in the stands,” he said. “It’s completely quiet. I just don’t hear anything.
“You have to have confidence in yourself. If you go out on the field and think you’re going to miss, you’re going to miss. You can’t have that mindset. It’ll throw everything off.”
Gatlin, son of Cheri and Joel Gatlin, said the game-winning opportunity that kicking presents is exciting.
“I like the thrill of kicking,” said Gatlin, a member of the Jackson Prep tennis team. “It’s different from anything else in other sports.”
A kicker’s dream is to save a game and that happened last year when McGee produced an extra point to give MRA a 27-26 victory over Trinity (Texas) Christian School in the season opener for both schools. Last year, McGee also faced the unusual situation of making a tackle to save a touchdown when MRA played Copiah Academy.
Gatlin kicked a memorable field goal when he was in tenth grade and Jackson Prep beat Parklane Academy 31-28 in double overtime.
A personal best can be memorable, too. Swalley kicked a 45-yard field goal, a record for him, when JA played East Lauderdale last year. “It was awesome,” he said.
The three have gotten off to good starts this season, Wilson said, offering these statistics:
• Swalley made five of five extra point attempts in JA’s first game. Last season, Swalley made 7 of 10 field goal attempts and 57 of 58 extra point attempts for 78 points and helped JA to a 9-4 record and the MAIS Class 6A runner-up finish.
• McGee made 10 of 10 extra point attempts in MRA’s first two games. Last year, McGee made 3 of 4 field goal attempts and 57 of 61 extra point attempts to help MRA to 12-0 record and its second straight MAIS Class 6A state championship.
• Gatlin made field goals of 46 and 35 yards and one extra point attempt in Prep’s first game. Last season, he made three of five field goal attempts and 39 of 40 points to help Prep to a 7-3 finish.
All three aspire to kick in college and are waiting to see what possibilities present themselves.
McGee mentioned kicking for a Division 3 team and his dream of walking on at Mississippi State University, his favorite Division 1 school.
Swalley said he kicking in front of coaches at the University of Southern Mississippi earlier this year, mentioned his dream of attending the University of Alabama and dropped the name of a former JA player who kicked at the University of Mississippi. “One of my good buddies, Land Gebhart, was a kicker at JA and then at Ole Miss,” he said.
Gatlin didn’t name a specific college or university but said kickers are usually recruited after key players. “The get all of the position players and get the kickers later,” he said.
The years seem to have passed quickly since the three were boys mastering the fundamentals of soccer, said Wint McGee, himself a former kicker at MRA.
“They were good players then and you knew they were going to be good at whatever sport they chose,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly the time has flown by and now they’re seniors in high school.”