Claire Skillman has a vivid recollection of her varsity football debut.
Moments after Indian Creek scored its first touchdown of the season, she entered the game. The score was tied 6-6. Her job was to give the Braves the lead.
Staring down the teeth of Knightstown’s defense, she lined up for the extra point, waited for the snap, tuned out defenders when they came and then calmly kicked the ball through the uprights.
And with that PAT, the Braves went up 7-6 in a game they would go on to win 41-20.
And Skillman, a former team manager with no formal football training whatsoever, picked up a wealth of confidence and — quite likely — the permanent job of PAT kicker.
So, exactly how scared was she when it was time for foot to meet pigskin in a varsity game? With defenders snarling and stampeding the moment of the snap, under the glare of Friday night lights?
“I actually wasn’t very nervous,” said Skillman, a sophomore who is no stranger to pressure situations. A club soccer player, she routinely plays in highly competitive travel matches.
Moreover, her first-ever PAT wasn’t actually her first-ever PAT. She connected on the first one she attempted during an Aug. 14 scrimmage at Greensburg.
But the one she made in the first quarter of last Friday’s season-opener was her first in a varsity game. Not only that, it was the first of a perfect night for the first-year — and first-time — football player.
For the game, Skillman made all five of her PAT tries. Were it not for a bad snap on an aborted sixth try that statistically did not count against her, she might have scored six points for the Braves instead of five.
But no matter. By demonstrating poise and accuracy, Skillman officially earned a job that was technically up in the air heading into the game.
“When she goes 5 for 5, she’s our starting extra-point kicker,” Braves’ head coach Mike Gillin said. “The pressure didn’t seem to bother her. Five for five, that’s pretty good.”
It was better than good, and it reaffirmed Gillin’s hunch that Skillman could be the Braves’ answer for PATs, sometimes a weak spot for an otherwise traditionally strong Class 3A program.
A self-described non-expert on coaching kickers, Gillin often experiments with different players for PATs and field goals until settling for someone with reasonable accuracy, consistency and leg strength. Rarely does he find someone who combines all three.
Fortunately for the Braves, Skillman combines two: accuracy and consistency, the critical requirements for PATs. Sophomore teammate Dylan Sprong possesses the leg strength, so he handles kickoffs. Should the Braves attempt a field goal beyond 30 or so yards, they’ll likely turn to Sprong.
But because the high-scoring Braves rarely attempt field goals, the best special teams news of Friday night was the discovery of a PAT kicker who regularly delivers.
“One game does not a season make, but when you’re 5 for 5, you’ve earned the opportunity to kick extra points for us,” said Gillin, who invited Skillman to try out for the team after watching her kick for fun during a Braves’ practice.
“I’m real proud of Claire. I’m happy for her, and I’m happy for us,” Gillin said. “We’re real pleased.”
So is Skillman, who enjoys being part of the team and appreciates the support she receives from teammates and coaches. And she especially enjoys the thrill of performing on Friday night.
Then again, she’s pretty fond of weekday afternoons, too.
“In the afternoon at school I’ll look up at the clock and think, ‘Only two more hours until I get to go to football practice and be with my team,’” she said. “I love it.”