NORTH AUGUSTA — Coming into last week’s season-opening game, there were questions about how the North Augusta High School football team would fare. With so many new starters asked to step up and contribute, the Yellow Jackets were no sure thing to win their first game of the season for the eighth consecutive season.
But with the game on the line, first-year head coach Brian Thomas was able to turn to one of his few veteran players. Trailing Lakeside 10-9 with only seconds remaining, Thomas called on place kicker Blake Busby to attempt a 38-yard, game-winning field goal.
“I knew he had the leg top do it,” Thomas said of the senior, now in his second season as the full-time place kicker. “He hit it solid, it would’ve been good from 45 yards,” Thomas said of the field goal that split the uprights and made North Augusta a 12-9 winner.
For that game-winning kick, and his ability to overcome adversity, Busby was selected as the WHAV/Aiken Standard Player of the Week.
If he didn’t make the last-second field goal, much less get the opportunity, Busby could’ve taken the potential loss hard. After connecting on a 34-yard field goal in the first quarter, the North Augusta senior missed a point-blank extra point kick in the second quarter. When the Panthers took a one-point lead with 5:25 to play in the game, the difference on the scoreboard was because of the previously failed PAT.
For his part, Busby admitted to feeling some nerves coming into the game, but said that wasn’t an issue down the stretch.
“It wasn’t on my mind. I wasn’t thinking about,” the miss Busby said of his state of mind when the Yellow Jackets got the ball for their final drive, ultimately setting up his game winner.
He pointed out a couple of factors that helped him avoid dwelling on a possible kick. The first factor was the malfunctioning scoreboard at the Jackets Nest. That technological glitch prevented Busby or anybody other than the official keeping track of the time on the field from knowing precisely how much time remained. Even Thomas wasn’t sure if the final drive started with 58 or 53 seconds to play.
Another thing that kept Busby from pacing the sideline in anticipation was his role in the game. Busby is also a receiver for North Augusta and was on the field as it took possession of the ball. He even caught a 15-yard pass from quarterback Trib Reece to get the drive started, his lone reception of the game.
“Blake was involved in the game. He wasn’t just sitting and thinking,” Thomas said of Busby, who’s seeing significant time as a receiver for the first time at the varsity level this season.
Busby said he enjoys playing receiver, but it can affect his kicking. He said the length of the drive can leave him a little worn out when he needs to revert to his role as kicker. That’s why he didn’t mind at all when Lakeside tried to get in his head and called a timeout before he attempted the 38-yard field goal, trying to make him feel pressure.
“They tried to ice me, but it helped me out. I had been in the game so it gave me the chance to catch my breath,” said Busby, who was focused when the moment of truth arrived. “I tried to block everybody out – the noise the other team and just focus. The snap was a little right, but (holder) Josh Iaukea placed it and I got my toe on it. I got the sweet spot and knew it was going through, I could feel it. I had the distance on it.”
The mechanics of the play are often overlooked, but critical to the result. Iaukea’s clean handling of the snap was very important, since an errant snap was what doomed the earlier PAT. Busby said his rhythm was thrown off by that snap, causing him to stutter and miss the short kick. So Iaukea’s work to give Busby a clean and well-timed target was imperative.
Busby added that he was confident in the high-pressure situation because of past experience. While this was the longest field goal he ever attempted in a game and the first in this do-or-die scenario, he does have a history of kicking the ball with the game on the line. Just not in football.
Busby’s also a member of North Augusta’s soccer team. He said he’s been involved in four penalty-kick shootouts for the Yellow Jackets.
“I’m used to it, I’m used to the pressure and that helped a lot,” said Busby, admitting he’s not as familiar with wild celebrations like the one that broke out after his game-winning field goal. “I just started running. Everybody was charging at me and I didn’t know how to celebrate. Everybody jumped on top of me. It was exciting, but I was at the bottom of the pile.”
In spite of his experience, including making 4 of 6 field goal attempts last season, Busby should benefit from this situation. His status on the team was secure, especially after a strong spring, but with a game-winner under his belt it could bode for a brighter future for Busby who said he’d like to be a college football kicker if given the opportunity.
“It gives everybody confidence,” Thomas said. “He knows he can do it when it counts, under pressure.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.