The tension was building along the Battle sideline with four minutes left in the third quarter of the Spartans’ Class 5 District 4 semifinal against Francis Howell North on Friday. But the drama didn’t come from a close football game; Battle was leading by 41 points at the time.
It was because Thomas Atherton was getting set to kick an extra point.
“Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!” his teammates chanted as the safety prepared to take the kick. He was 2-for-2 already, so maybe he had started to get into a rhythm.
But this time, the ball didn’t even make it to the uprights. It died almost immediately and landed in the end zone.
His teammates booed him. Playfully.
“They hyped me up for those first two that I made, so if they boo me for one as a joke, then I’ll take it,” Atherton said.
Friday’s 54-18 victory was Atherton’s best game as a kicker since he took over from the injured Garrett Bever in Week 7 — after Bever had already taken over for the injured Carter Henry in Week 2.
Through Atherton’s first two games against Jefferson City and Hannibal, he was 0-for-3 on extra-point attempts. The Spartans had gone 5-for-11 on two-point conversion attempts in that same span, because they thought they had a better chance of converting those than Atherton had of making the kick.
“The first few weeks, I couldn’t get the ball more than about 30 yards,” Atherton said.
It started out that way against Howell North, too. Battle went 2-for-5 on two-point attempts as the team jumped out to a 34-13 lead just after halftime.
Then Atherton was given his chance to shine.
He made his first extra point on the next Spartan touchdown. A few minutes later, he made his second. The junior missed that third kick by a lot, but he was OK with it considering the relative improvement on the night.
But extra points weren’t all Atherton did on Friday. He also wreaked surprising havoc on Howell North’s special teams during kickoffs. His kicking style caused the Knights to muff back-to-back returns in the third quarter.
The first was “like a planned-ish onside kick” — his description – that Jarret Lambert recovered at the 41-yard line. The second one wasn’t supposed to be onside, but it fell from the sky around the 25-yard line and both of the surrounding Knights bobbled it until Jasper Lindsey dived on it himself.
“I think we were more lucky than good on those,” Battle coach Atiyyah Ellison said. “I don’t know if he was trying to go for those, but it worked out in our favor.”
The Spartans quickly scored on both of those possessions, extending a narrow 26-13 halftime lead into an insurmountable 54-13 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Atherton says he benefited from Battle’s bye during the first round of the postseason last week. It gave him ample time to practice and improve his kicking, and he is motivated by the importance of having a consistent kicker on the team, especially against a high-caliber opponent such as undefeated Fort Zumwalt North, who the Spartans will face in the District Championship next week.
“The two-point conversions are 50-50,” Atherton said. “But the field goals can be really beneficial if I can get it on point.”
Battle (7-3) will take on No. 1 seed Fort Zumwalt North (10-0) in the Class 5 District 4 Championship on Friday at 7.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.