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  • Hemmelgarn

Sunday, December 03, 2017 1:00 am

Defensive stalwart shows his versatility

GREG JONES | The Journal Gazette

Saint Francis senior Eric Hemmelgarn walked up to the kicking tee and was approached by an official. 

“On the second or third kickoff, the official came up to me and said 'you are the biggest kicker I have ever seen,'” the 6-foot-5, 320-pound defensive tackle said. 

Hemmelgarn is not the normal size for a kicker because, well, he is not the regular kicker.

The Jay County product was pressed into kickoff duties after Gavin Gardner suffered an apparent hip injury after kicking an extra point on No. 1 Saint Francis' first touchdown in Saturday's 43-36 NAIA semifinal win over No. 3 Morningside at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. 

Hemmelgarn did some kickoffs during his senior season at Jay County, so he had some practice. He handled the kickoffs well, getting the ball deep into Morningside territory every time and not having any big returns against him. 

“I wasn't expecting to kick, but I accepted the challenge. Someone had to step up,” he said. “That's just the way it is. The only bad thing was I did the kickoffs, and I had to make sure they didn't get past the other 10 guys. Then I had to run back and get the tee, and then go play defense for a couple of plays. That gets tiring.”

Hemmelgarn has been the team's “third-string” kicker for the past four years but hasn't been needed to do any kickoffs. Saint Francis' No. 2 kicker, Brandon Grasha, was not available. 

“They never thought they would need me,” Hemmelgarn said of being the No. 3 kicker. “Today after the first touchdown, Coach (Eric) Waggoner came up to me, and I thought he was just messing with me. He said, 'Can you do kickoffs?' At first, I said I haven't warmed up ... that was just what I was thinking. Then I said yeah, I will do it. I thought I did pretty good.”

The Cougars attempted a 2-point conversion after every touchdown after Gardner's injury, except the final one when punter Joe Knepper's attempt failed. Saint Francis was 0 for 5 on 2-point conversion plays. 

Coach Kevin Donley said Gardner was in pain and “hopefully we will get him back” for the Dec. 16 national championship game against No. 2 Reinhardt (Georgia).

“But Hemmelgarn stepped up. ... He kicked the football (well),” Donley said.

In Hemmelgarn's normal position with the team, he is an All-American for one of the top units in the nation. The Cougars (13-0) held the Mustangs (13-1) two touchdowns below their season average, despite Morningside getting 496 yards of offense. 

It was the Cougars' third straight appearance in the NAIA semifinals, and they will be playing in their fifth NAIA title game.

“We knew it would be tough from the start,” Hemmelgarn said. “This is the second-best team behind us. There were moments in the game where the offense struggled, and there were moments where the defense struggled but did what we do best, and we finished games.

“We are where we want to be, but we aren't done.”

gjones@jg.net