CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – By the time Kash Kiefer enrolled at the University of Maine, he had already participated in two NCAA football bowl games.
Kiefer was a cheerleader at West Virginia University when it played in the 2005 Gator Bowl and he was a backup punter on the Mountaineers squad that played in the 2006 Sugar Bowl.
Even with that kind of experience, it is today Kiefer plays in the most important game of his life. The senior will handle the punting duties for the University of Maine when it faces Northern Iowa in an NCAA first-round playoff game at the UNI-Dome.
Kiefer’s roundabout route to a college football career seems to fit well with the Black Bears’ unexpected journey to the postseason.
“I, myself, like to be the underdog,” said Kiefer, who is a native of Bridgeport, W.Va. “We’re just as good as anybody out there. Now we’ve just got to go out there and prove that we can do it.”
Kiefer’s football career began as a senior at Bridgeport High School where, after scoring a school-record 46 goals as a junior, the all-state soccer player was approached by football coach Bruce Carey. He agreed to allow Kiefer to attend all his soccer practices and games and show up for football once a week.
“He worked with my schedule. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be playing football in college right now,” said Kiefer, who had always been active in sports. He competed in soccer, baseball, basketball and swimming before taking up football.
Kiefer had plenty of sports influence at home. His father Jim is a baseball pitching and batting instructor who sells sporting goods, while his mother Kristi runs cheering gyms.
As far as football, he was a total novice.
“Back then I taught everything to myself,” Kiefer said. “I kicked off, did field goals and punted. I loved it, did great; we went to the playoffs.”
Kiefer had hoped to play soccer in college, but things didn’t work out. After graduating as Bridgeport High’s valedictorian, he enrolled at WVU. He stay involved with sports by joining the Mountaineers cheering squad.
While watching WVU during the season, a friend suggested Kiefer might be able to walk on and play for the Mountaineers. Kiefer embraced the challenge.
He worked out with Charlie Titus at Jersey Kicking, where he learned the basics of punting and place-kicking prior to attending WVU’s winter walk-on tryout. There, a group of 30-35 kickers and punters gathered inside WVU’s practice dome at 5 a.m., only to be told they would be doing their kicks outside – in the cold and snow.
After two elimination rounds of one punt each, the head coach came down and watched the finalists kick. Later that day, Kiefer saw his name on a list of players who had made the team.
“That was probably the second best feeling to what I felt in the locker room on Sunday (when UMaine learned it had been selected for the playoffs),” Kiefer said.
Ever since, Kiefer has dedicated himself to punting. He didn’t play at West Virginia, but through participation in camps got noticed by UMaine. He accepted a half-scholarship offer and signed, sight unseen.
“Kash is a much improved punter year to year and this has been his best year,” said UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove. “He has made some great contributions over his time here.”
Kiefer has been the Bears’ punter for the last 34 games. Along the way, he has learned to make plenty of adjustments.
He realizes every punt can’t be judged by distance or hang time alone. Each kick represents a different challenge in terms of how it can help the team.
“I’m trying to give our team the best field position possible,” Kiefer said.
Another key skill for punters is adjusting to field and weather conditions which can vary greatly at UMaine. His Morse Field finale included cold, snow and wind.
“I’ve definitely evolved over the years,” he said. “I think I’ve learned to adapt well to the conditions here. I know how to dress now.”
This fall, Kiefer has punted the ball 58 times, averaging 41.2 yards per kick with a net average (punt distance minus return yardage) of 33.0. He has put 20 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Ultimately, Kiefer realizes that every time he trots onto the field, it means the Bears’ offense has stalled.
“I’m out there to better my team and help us get a victory,” he said.
Kiefer, who owns the school record for longest punt after hitting an 82-yarder last season at Villanova, spent this week’s practices kicking inside the Mahaney Dome.
This season, he has been the veteran on a previously untested kicking squad. He has been a mentor to freshman place-kickers Jordan Waxman, Brian Harvey and Chris Gennaro.
“Most importantly, he’s taken on a more responsible leadership role. He wants to help the young kickers in the program,” Cosgrove said.
Kiefer, who serves as president of UMaine’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, hopes to keep working an eventually get a shot at punting in the pros. It is a difficult road, but he knows he’ll be able to fall back on his biology degree when football is over.
Today, Kiefer won’t mind having the luxury of punting inside the warm, dry, windless UNI-Dome – if needed.
“Hopefully, I’m not punting,” Kiefer said. “Hopefully, I’m getting hoarse on the sidelines cheering for my team.”