ARLINGTON, Texas — If recent bowl games have proven anything, it's that kickers are a vital part of college football.
Teams that have reliable kickers — such as Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Michigan — are celebrating victories in major bowl games on last-second field goals. Teams that don't, such as Georgia, Stanford and Virginia Tech, are trying to get past the sting of overtime losses.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder likes to think the Wildcats fall into that first category with Anthony Cantele, a junior who made 17 of 22 field-goal attempts this season and was named Big 12 special teams player of the week three times.
There was the 31-yarder he booted in the fourth quarter against Baylor to lift K-State to a 36-35 win. He made an important 20-yarder against Texas. And who could forget the two game-tying kicks against Texas A&M to force overtime and extend the game long enough for the Wildcats to win?
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"He has had a lot of have-to kicks," said special teams coordinator Sean Snyder. "He has had a lot of kicks toward the end of the game and in the middle of the game that were ones that you just had to have. They were that important. His ability to stay focused is unbelievable. He has really done a great job of that."
Funny thing is, nobody knew he was good in the clutch until a few months ago. Not even Cantele, a former Kapaun Mount Carmel standout who briefly gave up football and started his collegiate athletic career as a forward on Missouri State's soccer team. How could he know?
When he lined up with the game on the line in the fourth quarter against Baylor, he had no idea what he was getting into.
"In my four years at Kapaun," Cantele said, "I never once had the chance to kick a game-winning field goal. I made that one. It was fun. Having that pressure and pulling through was a lot of fun."
How did he do it?
"It's just a matter of not thinking about it and pushing everything else to the side and focusing on kicking," Cantele said. "I tried to think of it the same way I do an extra point."
His strategy worked perfectly. But getting to that point proved a challenge. Looking back, he thinks he defied the odds by even becoming a Wildcat.
When he chose soccer over football coming out of high school, he thought he had said goodbye to the gridiron forever. It was a difficult decision, but he decided he would stick with soccer, because he had played it his whole life. Football was more of a hobby.
But when he got to Missouri State, he quickly realized college soccer wasn't as much fun as high school soccer. Things weren't working out, and he wanted a change.
It's not every day college athletes are able to switch from one sport to another and have success. But he figured he'd give it a try.
"It's way different," Cantele said. "You're kicking a different kind of ball. With soccer there are different kinds of kicks — a shot, a cross, passing. It's never really the same thing. With football it's the same thing every time. Completely different mechanics and something that I was never really taught before I got here and Sean started working with me."
How Sean Snyder found out about Cantele may be the most interesting part of the kicker's story.
On the recommendation of his high school coaches, he put together a highlight video of his best kicks, and sent the videos to two schools — Kansas and K-State. But he was skeptical. He figured his best chance of making either roster was to show up at an open tryout and impress coaches with his kicking ability. But he wasn't even sure they held open tryouts.
"I wasn't confident in what might happen," Cantele
But shortly after Bill Snyder was hired as coach again in November 2008, Cantele's father got a call from current defensive ends coach Joe Bob Clements. He had watched Cantele's highlight video with Sean Snyder, and they had agreed to offer him a spot on the team as a walk-on.
Cantele was stunned.
To this day, Sean Snyder doesn't know why.
"He could hit the ball," Sean Snyder said. "Technique-wise, he was in pretty good shape. He wasn't a kid who needed to be completely revamped. In the big picture, he needed to work but with a few pointers here and there we were able to then cut him loose.
"His work ethic since has been incredible. He will kick upwards of 100, 150 balls a day. We've got to choke him down, because once he gets going, he goes."
Cantele challenged for K-State's kicking job last season, and opened the year booting both field goals and kickoffs, but he ran into accuracy problems and moved strictly to kickoffs. This year, he has handled all of the kicking by himself, and grown as a player.
"I'm having a blast," Cantele said. "It's been unbelievable to see all the success of our team this year and how we have proved a lot of people wrong. We're playing in one of the best bowls you can go to. I'm just glad to be a part of it."