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La Salle kicker helps key AAAA title

HERSHEY, Pa. - When the clock struck all zeroes, La Salle's Mike Bennett ripped off his helmet and dove head-first into the snow-covered field at HersheyPark Stadium.

HERSHEY, Pa. - When the clock struck all zeroes, La Salle's Mike Bennett ripped off his helmet and dove head-first into the snow-covered field at HersheyPark Stadium.

The Explorers' senior kicker said he doesn't mind playing in the snow. Actually, he quite enjoys it.

"I got a lot of confidence after the Easton game," Bennett said. "It's not that bad as long as you're balanced."

Easier said than done. When Bennett attempted a field goal in the first quarter of La Salle's 24-7 victory over State College in Saturday's PIAA Class AAAA championship, he fell flat on his butt after kicking the ball.

"I was positive it wasn't going in," Bennett said. "I was on my [butt] so I couldn't see it. I got up and saw it clang off and go straight up. I was worried."

The ball struck the crossbar and floated over the line for a 3-0 La Salle lead. And the 37-yard field goal was the longest ever in the PIAA Class AAAA championship.

It was just another key kick by Bennett during the Explorers' run to the state title. Against Easton in the Class AAAA quarterfinals, a game also played in a snowstorm, Bennett kicked a 35-yard field goal that broke a tie and proved to be the winning points with 53 seconds left in the third quarter.

"Is he clutch or what?" La Salle coach Drew Gordon said after Saturday's game.

A few minutes later, Gordon was even more expansive with his praise: Bennett was more than clutch in La Salle's run to a state championship.

"He's been doing it all year," Gordon said.

And he's done more than just kicking field goals in the snow. On Saturday, Bennett averaged a respectable 34.3 yards per punt - including one that backed State College to its 11. He started punting only in midseason when he took over for Steve Jones.

Bennett also hit two touchbacks on kickoffs, a key considering the Little Lions have a considerable return weapon in Alex Kenney. Bennett's lone mistake was kicking it to Kenney in the third quarter after Gordon had instructed him not to do so. Kenney returned the kick 96 yards for State College's lone score.

"People will think it's easy to just kick it away from him, but it's not as easy as it looks," Gordon said. "But I guess when you get frustrated with Michael it's because you think so much of him and you expect him to do it right all the time."

Bennett has this snow thing down so well, he's become an expert at analyzing it. Although the wind was stronger and more snow fell during Saturday's game, compared with conditions in the quarterfinal win over Easton at Banko Field in Bethlehem, Bennett said it was easier kicking amid the falling white flakes at HersheyPark Stadium.

"The Easton snow was more of a wet slush," Bennett said. "This was kind of dry and powdery. So it wasn't as bad at all. It's easier to move and plant in. It wasn't really a factor."

Whatever the case, the key is the kicker's balance.

"You have to stay straight up or you're going to go down," Bennett said. "You have to keep your head over the ball."

The early field goal put La Salle in the right mind, Gordon said. And Bennett, who said he is talking with a few Football Championship Subdivision schools, made a difference in the championship as a kicker.

"I felt great," Bennett said. "It was awesome. I was confident coming in."