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Kicking footballs straight and far came naturally for Matt Abramo, who picked up the sport after persistent knee pain forced him to the sidelines in soccer.

The thrill of catching passes drew Jedi Tavares to football, and years of playing youth soccer transferred well to the kicking game.

The North Bay League rivals — Abramo at Casa Grande and Tavares at Windsor — lead a small but skilled set of true kickers in the Empire this season. They can help win football games with consistent points after touchdowns and the occasional field goal.

Others teams turn to soccer standouts, developing enough confidence and coolness in players to score points for their squads.

"I was so used to kicking a soccer ball that kicking a football was easy. I've just tried to get better working on form and technique," said Abramo, who began kicking in middle school youth football and now leads Empire prep kickers in scoring. "It felt good from the start. I liked scoring points for the team."

Not far behind is Tavares. The first to take up football in a soccer-playing family, his kicks have helped Windsor pull out close wins.

"I wanted to try something new," Tavares said. "I love kicking. I was still able to do that in football."

Kicking is a much appreciated element in a football team's success. Gaining points after touchdowns is paramount, field goals a bonus. Equally important are deep kickoffs, bolstering defenses by pinning opponents deep in their half of the field.

Finding a player with both skills and presence under pressure when all eyes are on your foot is challenging at the high school level.

"How important is a good kicking game, on a scale of 1-10, it's an 11," said Lower Lake coach Justin Gaddy.

Lower Lake coaches have worked with three kickers since early summer. Soccer player Mauricio Jauregui handles conversions and field goals, staying with it despite being tackled on his first attempt in a game.

"You just need kids with the right attitude," Gaddy said. "They have to be coachable and need to deal with pressure."

Already kicking at a high level as juniors, Abramo and Tavares might finish among the Empire's all-time best.

Both have a strong work ethic. Given another year at the craft, each could play at the college level.

Of the pair, Abramo is the more polished. Already ranked among California's top prep kickers, Abramo has worked with private coaches the past several years. He increased the training with a dozen showcase and college camps this past winter and summer.

"Matt is always practicing. He kicks on his own all the time," Herzog said. "It's very hard to develop a kicker with the ability ours has."

From the fourth grade Abramo was determined to be the Casa Grande placekicker. His foundation was seven years of youth soccer.

Abramo gave up soccer due to a painful knee condition. Osgood-Schlatter disease is associated with growth spurts and aggravated by sports demanding running, jumping and quick lateral movement.

Kicking a ball felt good again when Abramo began teeing up footballs at the youth level.

"It was kind of a relief. I just always wanted to play," he said.

In freshman football at Casa Grande, the only conversions Abramo missed were blocked. He made both field goal attempts.

Struggles last season shook Abramo's confidence. While he converted all but four of 42 conversion attempts, Abramo made only one of three field goals. He also shared kickoff duties.

"Kicking is primarily a mental thing," Abramo said. "I always thought I was a good kicker. I needed to improve. I was not the best I could be."

To prepare for the 2013 campaign, Abramo added Chris Sailer camps to his work with Modesto kicking specialist Paul Assad. Abramo joined legions of prep kickers showcasing skills to college coaches.

"You had to compete. You had to get better if you want to stand out," Abramo said.

Adding some 30 pounds to his frame with team conditioning and speed training helped Abramo gain greater strength to power footballs longer and higher.

"He's much stronger and explosive, much more confident," Herzog said. "He's a huge part of our team's success. He is one of our most valuable players."

So far this season Abramo has made all but one conversion and is seven for nine on field goals, the longest 42 yards — with ample distance to spare.

Nearly all of Abramo's kickoffs have sailed into the end zone. The resulting touchbacks take playmakers out of the kickoff and force opponents to start from the 20-yard line, a significant defensive advantage.

"All I have left to do is punting. That's the goal next year," Abramo said.

The consistency Abramo has shown is what Tavares wants to develop.

"I've got to work on it to get it right every single kick," he said.

Windsor's players and coaches like what they have so far in Tavares.

"He's raw, but he's talented," said Windsor coach Vic Amick. "He understands what to do as a kicker."

From approaching the ball to upper body posture and leg speed, Tavares is improving technique through hours kicking on his own. While leg strength is there, he must harness the power to make more conversions and blast touchbacks with regularity.

In the Rancho Cotate game, for instance, Tavares banged a conversion off an upright. But he sent two of three kickoffs deep into the end zone.

Then there were the Granada and Washington games. Tavares booted five field goals in all — ranging from 25 to 42 yards — helping the Jaguars win close contests.

"I know I'm perfectly capable. It feels really good to contribute," Tavares said.

As much as Tavares can influence a game with his kicks, he also is one of Windsor's primary receivers. Tavares also is a top track talent, and is best at the hurdles.

"He's a great, fun, hard-working young man," Amick said.

That he is playing football reflects a determination to be the best at whatever he does. First he had to overcome his mother's concerns about injury.

"My mom thought it was too dangerous for me. The more I kept on playing she started to get into it," he said.

Learning to play receiver has required much work. Kicking came easy. Ball skills developed by playing years of youth soccer helped.

"I have the power and aim. I can just put the ball anywhere," Tavares said.

Pressure is not a factor for Tavares. A short memory helps.

"I just go up there and do it," he said. "If you make it that's good, if you don't then you just let it go."