First Female Place-kicker Shines on the Varsity Team
Girls soccer player brings her skills and joins the boys playing football.
Men and women compete all the time — in the workplace, in politics. But in traditional sports, lines are usually drawn between the two. Boys play football, girls don't. It used to be that simple.
At Clawson High School, sophomore Olivia Paquette is the first and only female player on the varsity football team.
Paquette, 5-feet-5-inches tall, 113 pounds, joined the team as a place-kicker this season.
"We didn't have a kicker in the program and in the past I'd try to get a guy off the soccer team to be a part-time kicker," head coach Jim Sparks said. "But they had several Friday games (the same night as football)."
"I wasn't sure what to do and then I watched a girls soccer game," he continued. "(Paquette) was already out there and she plays pretty tough."
As a teacher, Sparks knew Paquette as a student. Then he saw her in a different light.
"I approached her after class and asked her," he said. Paquette didn't shy away.
"He asked me to come to the football field and try," said Paquette, who also plays on the volleyball team. "I came up there and started kicking and got most of them in. So he had me keep coming back and practicing and I got better at it."
But what did her parents, Gina and Mike Paquette, think?
"I don't know too much about football but I thought 'you'll get crushed, you can't play football,' " Gina Paquette said.
Sparks assured her that Olivia would only be kicking and the players would not tackle or block her.
"That made me feel better and the boys have been very nice to her and very supportive," Gina said. "They kind of look out for her a little bit."
Olivia's father, Mike Paquette, said he knew his daughter was a tough and competitive soccer player but he still feared for her safety on the gridiron.
"It's the field goals I'm concerned about," he said. "It could be a game-winning situation."
Olivia is the youngest of four girls.
Playing on the field
Sparks worked with Olivia through the summer and brought former Troy High School and current Michigan State University place kicker Kevin Muma to teach her fundamentals. The actual kicking was easy for Olivia. It was the addition of football equipment that she had to get used to.
"The pads didn't affect me but the helmet cut off a lot of my vision," Olivia said. "It was really weird the first time."
How would the other 24 male players on the football team respond to a female team mate?
"We didn't really believe it at first," center Greg Gmeiner said. "Nobody really wanted a girl on the team but then she showed us she could put some points on the board."
Senior DeShawn Gilbert works closely with Olivia as the holder for extra points and field goals and Gmeiner gets the ball to them.
"The coach was all over our heads about protecting her," Gilbert said. "We have to make sure that nobody (on the opposing team) touches her even after the play."
Gilbert said the reality of a female kicker sunk in when he realized how good Olivia was at practice.
"I saw (Sparks) was serious and I saw her practice and I understood how he got the idea," Gilbert said. "But it’s been fun having her on the team and she's a really good kicker."
Gmeiner said Olivia was having a little bit of trouble with the transition from volleyball and soccer to football.
"We just told her to shake it off," he said. "She's doing great and you couldn't ask for a better kicker. And the coach tries to keep it the same and doesn't give her any special treatment because she's a girl."
Sparks said he has had to make a few adjustments for Paquette.
"She changes in our equipment room that locks separately from the locker room," Sparks said.
After three season games, Olivia has connected on 17 of 18 extra point kicks and has a 22-yard field goal. She has hit field goals from 30-40 yards in her two-days a week practice schedule. The first game kick in the opener against Bishop Foley on Aug. 26 put a lot of pressure on her.
"I was scared," Olivia said. "A lot of people showed up — my whole family was there — and I did not want to miss. But I got it."
Olivia's other coaches, Jared Kullman, girls soccer, and Amy Reaume, girls volleyball, have been very supportive of her.
"I'm glad she can help fill a need on another Clawson team," Kullman said. "Cooperation between the programs is the best way for a small school to compete against larger schools."
"I'm all for sharing with dual sports — tennis, soccer basketball, football — as long as they share back," Reaume said. "Coach Sparks and I are always on this 'train' together and we discussed it. We have our (volleyball) practices in the morning and they practice after school."
Protecting the kicker
Olivia gets her share of teasing from teammates.
"The kids will make a comment about her hair or her make-up or the fact that it takes her four times as long to put on the equipment," Sparks said. "But they step up and help."
And the boys have a little more on the line when they line up for extra points and field goals.
"We can't let anyone through now, especially," Gmeiner said. "Coach really emphasizes that we have to protect our kicker now more than ever."
Paquette isn't the only girl playing high school football. There are 36 girls participating in football teams in the Michigan High School Athletic Association.