McClure teen punts her way to the big stage

McCLURE – Two hundred thirty six feet, or just over two thirds of a football field, might not seem like a significant number to many. But just ask McClure teen Sara Shambach about it – she’ll tell you how special it is.

With her total of 236 feet, 8 inches, Shambach climbed to the top of her age group at the NFL’s Punt, Pass and Kick Team Championship Dec. 8 for a first-place finish at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ indoor practice facility.

Punt, Pass and Kick is a youth competition that was established by the NFL in 1961 and in which the competitors collect cumulative scores – a measurement not only of distance, but also of accuracy – in a single punt, pass and place kick. Competitors are placed in separate brackets depending on their age and gender.

Whoever has the highest score at the end of competition is the winner of his or her bracket.

“It was exciting. I was happy. Last year I got fourth, so it was a big change,” said Shambach, who competed in the girls 14- and 15-year-old bracket.

Shambach said the punt is her ace in the hole, and it certainly was her best competitive advantage at the Team Championship, where she competed against three other girls. In the punt, Shambach notched 85 feet, 4 inches, while she got 72 feet even in the pass and 79 feet, 4 inches in the kick.

“The girl that got second, we were 10 feet apart,” said Shambach, who further explained that it was in both the punt and the pass that she surpassed the runner-up to account for the 10-foot margin of victory. But this wasn’t the first time Shambach’s punting abilities were key in a win – they were also what propelled her to a sectional win.

Punt, Pass and Kick starts at the local level, then moves up to sectionals before reaching the Team Championship. Each NFL team hosts a Team Championship, and only competitors who have advanced through the local and sectional competitions reach this level.

Shambach won her local competition at State College on Sept. 29, and then at the sectional in Indiana, Pa., on Oct. 26, where her punting skills came through in the clutch.

“The girl that I was competing against (in Indiana) beat me in the pass, but I made up for it with the punt,” Shambach said.

Shambach is a sophomore at Midd-West, where she is a letter winner in both softball and basketball. The Mustang also used to play soccer, and she credits her softball and soccer experiences for some of her success in passing and punting.

“I definitely practiced more,” Shambach said of her preparation for this year’s competition. “I was working out for my sports, and I think that helped too.”

She didn’t emphasize it as much, but a calm, cool approach to the pressure of competition might have also influenced the outcome.

“I just learned to relax and take deep breaths,” Shambach said. “If I do bad on one (category), I have to make up for it in the next one.”

For most people it’s a special and unlikely opportunity to walk on a professional athletics field – especially as a competitor – but Shambach has gotten to do this at two separate locations. In addition to the Steelers’ facilities, Shambach has also competed at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ facilities for Major League Baseball’s Pitch, Hit and Run – a program similar in nature to Punt, Kick and Pass – where she placed second. It was also while doing this that she learned about the football competition.

“I wish I would have known about it sooner. I would have started sooner,” said Shambach, who will be too old for either competition next year.

Beyond the Team Championship, Punt, Pass and Kick hosts a national competition to be held during one of January’s NFL playoff games. Only the top four winners from each Team Championship advance to the national competition, and Shambach awaits a call Dec. 26 to see if she has advance.

However, regardless of outcome, it was clear the teen is happy with what she accomplished in her final year.

“It felt good knowing it was my last year and I did the best I could,” she said.