JUST FOR KICKS

Tyrone’s kicking game is one more vastly improved area in 2022

In their own ways, both AJ Coleman and Rocky Romani are naturals when it comes to kicking a football.

However, a season ago neither could have anticipated the impact they would make on the Tyrone football team in 2022 with the might of their powerful lower halves.

In 2021, Coleman was a sophomore reserve hoping to get some time on kick coverage teams, while Romani was playing soccer for Coach Alex Bartlett.

How the duo came to become the focal point of the Eagles’ special teams efforts in 2022 is an interesting story, and the end result has been a reliable kicking game that does much more than simply hand the ball back to the opposing team. This year, it puts pressure on Tyrone’s opponents, and through two games it has been as solid as it has at any time since 2017.

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As a tenth grader, Coleman may have had the same mentality of most sophomores making the jump to varsity football. Keep your head down, do your job, definitely do not make waves.

That could account for the reason why he never tried out to punt in 2021, despite the fact that the Eagles were in desperate need of a solid fourth-down kicker. Instead, the job went initially to Ross Gampe and then to Zac LeGars. Both players had their moments, but in general each struggled to get the ball down the field, putting extra pressure on Tyrone’s defense to hold serve on a short field.

When Gampe came back this year, Coach John Franco said, he made it clear he did not want to punt his senior season. So tryouts were open once again.

This time, Coleman went for it, and Franco was certain he had found his guy,

AJ Coleman punts one against Brookville.

“AJ started kicking and I’m going, ‘Where were you last year?'” Franco said. “He said, ‘Well, I thought you had enough punters.’ I said, ‘We never have enough punters.’ I like AJ because he’s going to be with us for two years.”

Coleman said his reluctance actually came from something a bit more serious than extra players on the punter depth chart.

“I wanted to take a break,” he said. “In junior high I just had a lot of problems with my ankles. I just thought it wouldn’t be a good idea.”

Those issues behind him, Coleman is now backing teams up with his booming kicks and giving Tyrone’s much improved defense a chance to keep teams pinned on their side of the 50. In 6 punts, he’s averaging 34.8 yard per kick.

His first punt of the season against Bellwood-Antis was a 41-yard moonshot. A week later against Brookville, he avoided pressure following a tough snap to send another boot 40 yards.

“My legs were always strong, and I always thought it was fun anytime I had free time and a football just to go out and punt it and see what I could do,” Coleman said. “Especially in junior high when I started developing that punting ability.”

Coleman said he has a strong bond with friend and long snapper Austin Lucas, which contributes to the chemistry of Tyrone’s kicking game.

“I try to stay relaxed and just trust my line and trust my guys to block and give me time,” he said.

DUAL SPORT SENSATION

There was a time not very long ago when a player like Romani would have never stepped on Gray-Veterans Memorial Field, let alone kick extra points and kickoffs.

Tyrone two decades ago, like many schools to this day, had a one-sport policy for each of their athletic seasons, so a kicker with the skills of Romani would have been relegated to simply playing soccer.

Now it feels like I have another group of brothers to play alongside with.

Rocky Romani

Once that policy changed, it opened the door for many different crossovers, beginning first with spring sports athletes, who could now play baseball but also fill in spots on relay squads for the track and field team. Those were the days before Tyrone had a soccer team and a co-op with neighboring Bellwood-Antis.

Within the last eight years, soccer players have begun filtering over to the football team, beginning with Ethan Vipond in 2014. As recently as 2020, Kendall Markley became the first female to play for the Golden Eagles when she converted 19 of 22 extra points.

There’s a lot of value in welcoming specialty players whose lives have been centered around kicking a ball since kindergarten, and Romani’s friends on the football team recognized that.

“I had a lot of players on the team come to me and say that I should try it,” he said. “So I gave it a shot. And, of course, soccer had a big influence on it because of the lower body strength it gave me.”

Franco was impressed immediately once Romani tried out. He did so, Franco said, after the coach had brought a few former kickers down from Altoona to pass on some advice, and one came to him raving about Romani’s ability and potential.

“That was a nice surprise, and he’s only a sophomore,” said Franco. “So we’re looking forward to having him.”

However, Franco’s blessing was only half of the equation. Romani still needed to pass it by Bartlett, who offered his approval and has been happy to see his player’s success.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for him,” Bartlett said. “Rocky is a talented athlete and has the ability to make an impact no matter what sport he plays.”

In his first game against B-A, Romani went 3 for 4 on PATs, with his one miss coming on the heels of a bad snap. Last week against Brookville, he went 4-for-4 on points after touchdowns.

Romani has also boosted Tyrone’s kickoff game, providing kicks with lift and distance.

All in all, the transition has been rather smooth, Romani said, silencing the doubters who may have rather seen him stick to soccer alone.

“I had a lot of people saying to me that kicking footballs might mess up my shots for soccer,” he said. “As of right now, I’ve made 7 of 8 PATs, and I’ve scored 4 goals in three games so far in soccer. So I think it’s fair to say it hasn’t had much of an impact on soccer. I do have to say, though, kicking an oval ball rather than a circular one took a week or two to get used to, but after that I was ready for my first football game as a kicker.”

ALL FOR THE TEAM

Romani’s contributions to the Tyrone football team will most likely be limited to kicking for the next three seasons, and that’s all a part of the plan.

Coleman, while having a natural talent for punting the ball, is also a wide receiver and defensive back. In fact, during the preseason, Franco noted him as one of many receivers with the ability to get on the field and make plays. But for now, the depth of Tyrone’s receiving corps has made it so that Coleman’s time on the field is mostly on special teams.

However, neither player is put off by their role.

“We have a lot of good players on offense and defense,” Coleman said. “It’s hard to get in there. I’m just glad I can get on the field and contribute to the team.”

For his part, Romani has embraced the feeling of camaraderie on the football team and now feels like just one of the boys.

“The football team has been very welcoming,” he said. “Now it feels like I have another group of brothers to play alongside with.”

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