No longer a novelty, LHS kicker Abby Vestal has become just one of the guys

Accuracy on field, demeanor off of it has secured her standing with her teammates

A year ago, she was an oddity, a freak show, a female strangely out of context in a football uniform.

But today, senior place-kicker Abby Vestal is literally and figuratively just one of the guys on the Lawrence High football team.

“I think we’re all comfortable with her back there,” said tight end Nick DeBiasse, also a senior.

Vestal has given the Lions plenty to be comfortable about. In the first three games, she has connected on 10 of 11 extra-point kicks. The only PAT she missed was blocked because of a low snap.

Yet it isn’t Vestal’s on-the-field performance that has propelled her into bona fide LHS football status. She cemented her standing during the summer when she joined the other players in pumping iron.

“She was there for our weight program,” LHS coach Dirk Wedd said, “and our summer weight program isn’t easy. It’s hard.”

Vestal didn’t have to be there for the lifting, but she was, and her teammates couldn’t help but notice.

“Definitely,” said senior QB Chance Riley, who also holds on placements. “During weight training, she bonded with us a lot more.”

Vestal joined the Lions as a junior last season – an occasion that prompted an inevitable barrage of publicity – at Wedd’s invitation. The veteran LHS coach knew she had a strong leg from watching her play for the Lions’ girls soccer team.

Lawrence High senior kicker Abby Vestal, right, and senior QB Chance Riley visit on their way to a football practice. Vestal endeared herself to her LHS teammates when she attended summer weight-lifting sessions and now is treated just like the rest of the team - except when it comes to dressing.

Back-up in 2005

Wedd had a place-kicker at the time in senior Chris Cates, but Wedd also had a couple of games scheduled on Thursday nights, and Cates, also a member of the LHS boys soccer team, was committed to the other football on those nights.

Cates was the Lions’ No. 1 place-kicker all season. Vestal, who was available because girls soccer is played in the spring, filled in for him mainly on those Thursday nights.

“She had to beat out Cates for the job, and she didn’t do it,” Wedd said. “This year, it’s her job. She’s done everything we’ve asked of her and more. There are no gifts here.”

Nor does Vestal covet any favors. She proved that by making all those summer weight sessions.

“Last year, it was, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a girl’,” she said. “Then last summer I went and lifted because I figured if I’m going to be part of the team, I should be part of the whole team.”

Two weeks ago, Vestal became an even bigger piece of the whole. For the first time, Wedd decided to use her to kick off. Last season and in the ’06 opener, Wedd had used a male in that role because he didn’t want to put Vestal in harm’s way.

Lawrence High senior quarterback Chance Riley, left, holds for senior place-kicker Abby Vestal as she makes a 37-yard field goal in front of coach Dirk Wedd, at right in black jacket, and the Lions varsity team.

Then Wedd changed his mind. Thinking that Vestal’s accuracy and distance could prove beneficial in the overall kickoff scheme, he asked if she would be willing to kick off, then run off the field. Vestal agreed.

Her kickoff debut came two weeks ago against Olathe South at Haskell Stadium, and it was quickly clear she had second thoughts because she ran two or three steps downfield before she did a 90-degree turn and headed for the Lions’ sideline.

“I definitely did not want to get off the field,” she conceded, “but I made a deal with coach Wedd, so I left.”

Backfired strategy

Since then, Vestal has departed promptly after kickoffs – including the seven times she teed and booted the ball Friday night when the Lions smacked Shawnee Mission South, 42-21, at SM South District Stadium.

By keeping Vestal out of the action, Wedd has been taking the calculated risk of playing 10-on-11 football. Those odds caught up with him in the SM South game when the Raiders’ Keith Rodden returned a Vestal kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown.

“When that guy ran that kick back, I had a pit in my stomach,” Vestal said. “He ran right up the middle where I would have been the last line of defense.”

Nevertheless, Wedd will not allow her to make contact. He figures she’s in enough danger just booting extra points. In the Olathe North game, for example, she was bowled over following a successful extra-point kick, and the Eagles were penalized.

“She showed how tough she was when she got roughed on that play,” Wedd said. “A lot of people look up in a situation like that and worry who’ll hit you.”

Vestal shrugged off the incident.

“I was OK,” she said. “I didn’t even realize I’d been hit until I was on my back.”

In essence, the only time Vestal doesn’t feel like a member of the Lions’ football team is when she’s dressing. While the boys use the regular football quarters, she has to go to the girls facility in the LHS West gym. It is then and only then that she feels disconnected.

“It’s kind of lonely,” she said, “especially after games because there isn’t anybody there to talk to.”