On the sideline during a Havre de Grace football game, Clay Harris doesn’t think much about his previous kick or his next kick. He’s talking to teammates and concentrating on what’s happening on the field to keep his mind relaxed.
When the Warriors offense approaches field-goal range, he shifts into warming up and kicking a few balls. The moment he takes the field, he’s fully focused.
“I find it kind of easy. You’ve just got to block things out and I just focus on the ball,” said the reserved senior, who has more to say with his kicks than his words.
That calm demeanor and mental clarity have been as critical to his success as his strong, explosive right leg. Last season, he tied two state kicking records — four field goals in a game and 13 in a season — as the Warriors made their second straight trip to the Class 1A state final. Kornblue Kicking, which runs camps and clinics around the country, ranks Clay 32nd among all high school kickers in the nation and fourth in Maryland.
“I think his personality definitely sets him up for success,” Kornblue coach Desi Cullen said. “He’s very much, I would say, on cruise control. … You have to have really good technique, but what sets the really good college kickers apart from the good high school kickers is the work ethic and the mental aspect.”
As a football player, Clay carries on a family legacy. A third-generation Warrior, he plays in a stadium named for his late grandfather, James R. Harris, a former Havre de Grace player and coach.
James, who guided the Warriors to the 1978 state championship, became a hometown hero in Havre de Grace, which still has a small-town feel today. In 1993, at age 50, he died of brain cancer, but he’s still fondly remembered, not just for winning football games but for being a mentor and even a father figure to many of his players.
Clay never knew his grandfather, but his grandmother, Cheryl Harris, comes to all of his home games. The legacy means a lot to the 17-year old.
“It’s special because I’ve got to carry on the family name,” Clay said. “Even though I never met him, I’ve heard a lot of stories about how great of a guy he was in the community. If I can make my grandmother proud, I know he would be proud, too.”
That could easily put more pressure on a high school kicker, but not Clay.
“He never seems to get nervous,” said Clay’s father, Scott, who attributes his son’s laser focus to his personality but also to his experience playing high-level club baseball since age 10.
“He’s played in I don’t even know how many tournaments where he made it to the finals. He’s got a ridiculous amount of trophies and medals, so I think that has helped mentally. It doesn’t faze him. ... In a game, it’s not like just kicking in camp when nobody’s watching, nobody’s rushing. It’s different. Clay’s a gamer.”
Clay, who pitches and plays left field for the Warriors, agreed that baseball has helped with his kicking game.
“Baseball, it’s a long game, so you’ve got to stay focused through all seven innings, so that focus also comes into play when I’m going out for a kick,” he said. “I’ve just got to focus for a short amount of time.”
While Clay thought about playing baseball in college, last year he decided he'd rather play football.
He’s worked since March with Cullen, who runs the satellite operation for Kornblue Kicking in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Cullen said Clay has progressed more quickly than any kicker he has ever coached and he expects him to be in Kornblue’s top 20 by the end of his high school career.
Clay said he’s not sure exactly why, but he’s always been intrigued by kicking. Neither his grandfather nor his father kicked for Havre de Grace — although his father, who played on the 1978 state championship team, punted. Clay’s brother, Nick, was a kicker at Bel Air High and at Stevenson University.
With Raven’ season tickets, Clay, his father and brother have always gotten to the stadium early to watch the kickers warm up. Clay studied Matt Stover and watches Justin Tucker looking for ways to refine his game.
“I just always found it interesting, watching the ball go through the uprights,” he said. “In eighth grade, I made a 30-yard field goal and that was pretty big for being in eighth grade, so I thought, ‘This is something I’m pretty good at, I should stick with it and work at it.’”
While Clay, who is also punting this fall, has been a consistent field-goal and extra-point kicker, he wants to improve his kickoffs, so he hit the weight room this summer. In two games, he’s had 13 touchbacks on 14 kickoffs. That’s about as many as he had all of last season.
Warriors coach Brian Eberhardt said Clay has clearly improved his leg strength — and his team’s chances to win. The Warriors (2-0) haven’t allowed a point this fall.
“Someone said to me, ‘That takes the thrill out of the kickoff.’ I said, ‘I’m fine with that. I don’t need any thrills,’” Eberhardt said with a laugh. “What an advantage that is, to consistently start somebody on the 20-yard line and make them go 80 yards in high school football.”
Clay has had just one chance at a field goal this season — barely missing a 50-yard attempt — but he’s hit 10 of 11 extra points. That’s a good start for him, veteran snapper Connor Gorham and new holder Christian Penrow.
The longest field goal he’s kicked in a game is 42 yards, although he nailed a 60-yarder off the ground at the Maryland camp this summer. He hit one from 52 yards during warmups for the state final last fall, but his only attempt during the title game — from 37 yards for a chance to break the state record — was blocked.
Hitting long field goals draws a lot of attention, but Cullen said college coaches aren’t looking for that.
“I think what’s going to decide how big of a college he goes to is how big his kickoffs are,” Cullen said. “Most coaches aren’t going to kick a 55- or 60-yard field goal. They want to know that he is very reliable inside 50 or 45 yards. One thing they do need is a guy who’s consistently going to put it in the back of the end zone and take away the option for returns at the next level.”
Cullen said Clay caught the attention of several Division I coaches with strong performances at Maryland and Towson camps this summer, but recruiting for him likely won’t pick up until after the high school season ends.
In the meantime, Clay’s focused on helping the Warriors get back to the state final while keeping his touchback percentage high, and if he gets the chance, breaking at least one of the field-goal records he tied last fall.
As you might expect from the even-tempered teen, he won’t be too upset if he doesn’t break a record. He know’s it’s not just about his ability.
“You never know how many field goals you’re going to make,” Clay said. “You might not get the chance for a field goal in a game. It is disappointing when I don’t get a chance because then I have to wait a whole week to get my shot, but that’s just how the game is.”