REGGIE HAYES: Former Norwell soccer player Graham Denney could make Saint Francis football debut in NAIA title game

University of Saint Francis soccer player Graham Denney, center, leaps during a game against Ohio Christian in September. (Photo courtesy University of Saint Francis)
Graham Denney

At first, Graham Denney assumed his University of Saint Francis roommate Eric Dunten was joking.

Dunten walked into Denney’s room on Sunday and said, “Hey, you want to kick for the football team?”

“I thought he was kidding around and stuff,” Denney said. “But he said he had a coach on the phone and asked if I wanted to talk to him.”

Not long afterward, Denney was on the Bishop D’Arcy Stadium field, kicking extra points and kickoffs in front of coach Kevin Donley. By Tuesday, Donley was introducing Denney to the rest of the team at practice.

Next week, Denney could be in uniform and kicking for No. 1 Saint Francis (13-0) against No. 2 Reinhardt (12-0) in the NAIA national championship game.

Saying it has been a whirlwind week for Denney is putting it mildly. A junior who plays soccer for the Cougars, Denney last kicked in a football game as a senior at Norwell High School in the fall of 2014. Another Saint Francis roommate, Connor Burgess, a former player who assists the coaching staff, recommended Denney to Donley.

“I thought it was an honor to be asked, but at the same time really nerve-wracking as well,” Denney said. “I’ve never played a college football game, but I’ve played a lot of college soccer games. To think the only game I might play in is the national championship game? That would be a ton of pressure if it came down to a field goal or some type of kick. I’m definitely nervous about it. But I can take up that challenge.”

The reason for the surprise emergency call is the uncertain status of Saint Francis kicker Gavin Gardner. Gardner suffered a hip injury in the Cougars’ semifinal win over Morningside last season, leaving the game after kicking an extra point and handling a kickoff. He is hoping to return to action next week.

Because NAIA rules allow only 57 players to be dressed for a semifinal playoff game, backup kicker Brandon Grasha was not available. The Cougars ran several two-point conversion plays instead of extra-point kicks and nose tackle Eric Hemmelgarn handled the kickoffs.

Donley doesn’t want Hemmelgarn handling kickoffs because of his value on defense. Grasha has been solid at extra points, but isn’t as strong at kickoffs. Some combination of Gardner, Grasha and Denney will be active for the NAIA title game against Reinhardt at 6 p.m. Dec. 16 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Donley has up to one hour before the game to make a final decision. If Gardner is unable to play it’s likely to be Grasha on extra points and Denney on kickoffs. But Denney will have the next few days to make a further impression.

“We’re hoping Gavin is going to be OK,” Donley said. “But I’m not going to the championship game having to use a dozen two-point plays.”

Denney has already experienced a bit of pressure.

When he went out Sunday to practice kicking, he thought he was going to be working without an audience. When he arrived, Donley was at the field.

“That put me on the spot right there,” Denney said.

Denney did well enough to be invited back. He’ll practice with the team the rest of the week, and likely make the trip to Daytona next Tuesday. NAIA rules state an athlete who is eligible to play in another sport at the university can join the football team at any time, Donley said.

“It’s been three years since I kicked, so I was definitely rusty,” Denney said. “I was really nervous, obviously with Coach Donley, ‘the Man,’ watching. I was pretty consistent with extra points and did pretty well with kickoffs.”

Denney has some connections with the team already. He was a high school teammate and close friend of linebacker Piercen Harnish, and they were roommates in college their first two years. Denney was Harnish’s best man when Harnish was married last summer. In addition to Dunten and Burgess, Denney’s other roommate is Saint Francis safety Adam Hoffer.

“Through those guys I know some of the other football guys,” Denney said. “Nick (Ferrer, Saint Francis quarterback) came up to me and said, ‘I heard you’re the new kicker.’ Stuff like that made me feel better.”

Denney’s last field goal in a game was a 31-yarder in Norwell’s 17-10 loss to Northridge in the 2014 regional championship. Denney is a left-footed kicker, so that would take an adjustment for holder Joe Knepper if Denney was to kick an extra point or field goal in the national title game.

“I think I jumped back at it, as I did in high school,” Denney said. “I think kicking is something that either comes natural to you or it doesn’t. I feel I definitely have more power now than I did in high school.”

Denney kicked Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and performed well enough to keep working as the team prepares for its trip south.

“I’m definitely thankful for this opportunity,” Denney said. “It’s definitely something very unique and cool. It would be a highlight of my career.”

Donley built this powerhouse team by recruiting and molding specific players in specific roles. Now he might use a soccer player making his football debut in the national championship game.

You don’t reach 300 career wins without occasionally thinking outside the box.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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