BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — As soon as the Shenendehowa football team’s offense moves into opposition territory, Nathan Fankhanel stops watching and gets to work. Never too far from the kicking net on the home sideline, the junior rarely sees the Plainsmen’s touchdown scores, instead using those final plays before paydirt to make sure his right leg is loose and ready.
When he hears the crowd’s cheers, he knows it’s time to hit the field and secure the extra point for his team. Snapping his chin strap into place as he runs out to his mark, the 125-pound Fankhanel goes through the same routine before each kick.
He sets up his tee. He takes three steps backward, two to his left, and one more back. A point with his right index finger toward the goalposts comes next, then the snap and the kick.
“I try to stay focused and zone out the crowd,” Fankhanel said. “I know there’s going to be 5,000 people watching me kick.”
Through Week 6 of the 2015 Section II football season, Fankhanel has gone through that routine 26 times, with an impressive 24 of those situations ending with more applause from the Plainsmen faithful. His best game was a 6-for-6 performance against Ballston Spa in a 42-7 Week 5 win.
“For a junior to have a lot of success, it’s a tribute to him and how hard he’s worked,” Shenendehowa coach Brian Clawson said.
In short time, too. Fankhanel only started kicking for Shenendehowa football last year as a sophomore with the junior varsity team. He had played some youth football growing up, but spent more time playing soccer before giving the sport up as a sophomore.
“I thought I’d have a better team experience, a better school experience, with football, so I wanted to try out for kicker,” Fankhanel said. “I made the [JV] team and, honestly, I’ve loved it.”
Scott Dochat, one of the JV team’s coaches, said the Plainsmen coaches were not sure what to make of Fankhanel when he showed up last season. Quickly, though, Fankhanel showed himself to be capable of contributing in a meaningful way.
“He was a huge asset for us,” Dochat said. “We had more onside kicks than ever. He was an offensive weapon for us.”
It was not too long ago that Shenendehowa did not regularly keep on its roster a player strictly to kick. That started to change at the start of this decade, with assistant coach Jim Ward leading the way as the team’s special teams guru.
“We’ve kind of developed a system where we’re keeping kickers at every level,” Clawson said. “It’s like any other position: if you graduate someone, you want to be able to reload with someone just as good.”
Like, this year, when Shenendehowa needed to find a new place kicker because last year’s kicker — Thomas Ciurczak, now a senior — broke his right foot this past May. Ciurczak made more than 90 percent of his extra points last season and is handling kickoff duties for the Plainsmen this season, but his foot has still not mended all the way to allow him the extra torque needed to boot a close-range extra point through the uprights.
“I don’t have that flexibility yet,” Ciurczak said.
Ciurczak — who also practices with the team’s wide receivers and defensive backs — has helped bring along Fankhanel this season, as the two work together on their kicking during practice.
“This is better programmatically for us,” Ward said. “It’s worked out really well. . . . They push each other. Each week, we have competitions for field goals and extra points, so it’s competitive every week between the two of them.”
For now, it is known that Ciurczak is the team’s kickoff specialist and Fankhanel handles the point-after attempts. The Plainsmen have not attempted a field goal yet this season, though, leaving Fankhanel to smile when asked if the team’s kickers know who would get the call in that situation.
“We’d find that out then,” he said.