Church finds foothold as football place-kicker
Smithsburg High School graduate Lauren Church, left - shown with her twin sister Morgan - was selected to the Women's Football Alliance All-American Game as the WFA's top place-kicker. (Submitted photo)
One twist: Church has spent most of her life kicking soccer balls, but she’ll being recognized for kicking footballs — those of the pigskin variety.
Church was the top points scorer in the Women’s Football Alliance this year in her second season as a place-kicker for the Jacksonville (Fla.) Dixie Blues. She’s one of two kickers on the National Conference All-Star Team, and she’ll suit up for the All-American Game at Pennington Field in Bedford, Texas, Saturday at 11 a.m.
“A few of our teammates go every year, and they just said they had a great time. To go to this game, where everyone’s going to be good, it’s awesome,” said Church, who graduated from Smithsburg in 2002. “I don’t know how many times I’ll get to kick, there’s another kicker on the team, but just being in the atmosphere will be exciting.”
It’s certainly not something she ever saw coming — but then, that’s not uncommon for Church, who’s always looking for new challenges.
Church was a goalkeeper on the Leopards’ varsity girls soccer team for all four of her prep years, setting school career records in goals-against average (0.40), shutouts (26) and saves (569) and helping Smithsburg share a Maryland Class 1A state title with Loch Raven in her senior season in 2001.
She went on to play at East Carolina University for two years and the University of Georgia for two more, setting Georgia’s single-season record for goals-against average (0.59) with 9.5 shutouts in her junior season.
It also was at Georgia where Church’s unusual journey into American-style football began.
“My senior year, a girl in my science class played on a rugby team and she asked me if I could kick for the team,” she said. “I didn’t know the rules for rugby and found out after I joined that you can’t sub out. They would toss me the ball and I’d kick it down the field and chase it. You get hit a little in rugby and I played until I got a concussion.”
After moving to Jacksonville with her twin sister Morgan Church — Morgan currently is an assistant soccer coach at North Florida University, where Lauren is the strength and conditioning coach and is working on her doctorate in physical therapy — a friend gave Lauren the idea to try out for the Dixie Blues.
“My sister and I were training for the Women’s Pro Soccer league,” said Church, who played professionally both in WPS and in Europe. “We only knew a few people in Jacksonville, and one played on the Dixie Blues. At that point, I was just playing soccer and had nothing else to do. I didn’t even really know the rules, but I thought, ‘It sounds like fun, can I get hurt?’ ... I also thought, ‘This can’t be harder than rugby.’
“Last year I tried out for it, and their kicker had a soccer background but it wasn’t as extensive, so when they saw me kick, they were like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be our kicker.’”
Church’s first season — in which she also played receiver — was derailed by an ACL tear. She returned healthy this season, stuck solely (no pun intended) to kicking and easily led the league with 39 field goals, with a long of 40 yards. She also made all 39 of her extra-point attempts to finish with 156 points as Jacksonville went 9-0 in the regular season and 10-1 overall, reaching the National Conference semifinals.
“I have one assistant continue to tell me, ‘You have no idea what it’s like to have you back,’” Church said. “After I was injured last year, we had an amazing quarterback but we couldn’t kick. We’d score and the other team would start at the 50, and we’d lose games because of that. I understand it more now when I kick off and it’s in the end zone.
“I’m starting to get the importance of it, but it’s so natural to me, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. My teammates are like, ‘Great game,’ and I’m like, ‘I just kicked. My uniform isn’t even dirty.’ It’s a little different, but definitely fun.”
For more information on the Women’s Football Alliance, visit their website at www.wfafootball.com.