Rittman, Firebirds thriving on special teams

Jake Rittman catches the ball on his way to score for Free State against Shawnee Mission West during the first quarter on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017 at Shawnee Mission South District Stadium.

Free State’s football team usually dedicates its time at the beginning of practices to various units of special teams. Two weeks into the postseason, and it’s already paid off.

Even when the Firebirds are forced to punt, they’ve found ways to turn it into an advantage for their defense with strong field position.

They are hopeful it will have the same effect when they play host to fifth-seeded Derby (9-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at FSHS in the Class 6A state quarterfinals.

For examples of Free State’s strong special teams, look no further than last week’s victory over Junction City in the second round of the playoffs. Senior punter Jake Rittman averaged 41.4 net punting yards, with four of his five punts landing inside of the Blue Jays’ 20-yard line.

“Jake’s had some big punts all year, but he put something extra on them the other night,” Free State coach Bob Lisher said.

A special night on special teams went beyond punts. Rittman had eight kickoffs and three touchbacks. Junction City only started one drive past its own 35-yard line.

In the third quarter, senior Gabe del Valle had an 82-yard punt return touchdown — the team’s first punt or kick return for a score of the season. Keenan Garber had a potential punt return touchdown in the first round of the playoffs called back because of a penalty.

“Special teams mean a lot in the game, especially if we execute and do them right,” del Valle said. “We’ve been practicing a lot more at that.”

Rittman splits kicking duties with junior Kameron Lake. Rittman is responsible for punts and kickoffs, while Lake handles most of the extra points and field goals.

Two years ago, the Firebirds started the season without a kicker. They attempted a two-point conversion after each touchdown for the first two weeks, which led to Lake joining the team.

Rittman, who didn’t play football during his sophomore year when he moved to California, always grew up as his youth football team’s kicker and punter. Punting was his primary focus last year before he shifted to receiver in his senior season.

“A lot of times people think punters and kickers aren’t athletes, but I like to think we are,” Rittman said.

After his sophomore year, Rittman grew more interested in becoming a punter at the collegiate level. He participated in camps to improve his mechanics and increased his leg strength.

There’s more to kickoffs than lining up and trying to hit the ball as hard as possible.

“You have to be consistent with your steps,” Rittman said. “It’s more work than people think it is. But at this point in the season, it’s kind of just muscle memory by now.”

Rittman said he’s enjoyed working with Lake in practices because it gives both players an opportunity to improve.

For the top-seeded Firebirds (10-0), they know they will rely on their special teams for big plays against Derby, even if that’s making the most out of a punt.

“Any way you can help the team is huge,” Rittman said. “Derby has a great offense. Starting them back in their own territory would be huge for our defense.”