For WSU’s Erik Powell, switch to football a snap

WSU’s kicker started out as purely a soccer player

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PULLMAN — Mark Powell moved his family to Washougal in 2004, hoping a five-acre plot of land in east Clark County would be more suitable for the army of athletes he and his wife Tina were raising.

If they ever did wish to field a soccer team, numbers wouldn’t have been an obstacle.

Mark and Tina Powell met on the University of San Francisco campus in 1984. He was a sophomore goalkeeper for the Dons soccer team and she was a freshman on the USF volleyball team.

“I met her (on) her first day of school in the training room,” Mark recalled, “and it took me about a month to convince her to go out on a date with me and we dated for five years and got married.”

They’d go on to raise 11 children – eight boys and three girls – who currently span from 9 years old to 27 years old. All 11 are athletically inclined, but soccer was always the sport of choice.

The fourth-oldest boy especially had a knack for the game.

It wouldn’t have been too hard for Erik Powell to gather a brother or five for a pickup game in the large pasture behind the family home, but more often than not, Mark found his son alone, rifling soccer balls into a net the family had propped up in its backyard.

And perhaps that’s how one of the Pac-12’s strongest legs was unearthed.

“(He) used to go out there for literally an hour and shoot,” Mark recalled. “Just out there forever, I think that’s just how his leg got so strong.”

Erik Powell parlayed a promising soccer career into a terrific football career and now the eighth-ranked Washington State Cougars are reaping the benefits of the countless hours their senior kicker spent spraying balls between the metal goalposts on a patch of grass in Washougal.

In five years at Washington State, Powell has experienced ebbs and flows — just about every ebb and every flow and kicker can endure, really — but this is his best season yet, and it’s not by coincidence that the Cougars are in the midst of a pretty strong one themselves.

No individual in the Pac-12 has scored more points than Powell. He and Utah kicker Matt Gay both have 64. Powell is 12-of-13 on field goals this season — he was blocked in a game against Oregon State — and he’s currently riding a nine-kick hot streak. The lefty earned Special Teams Player of the Week honors from the Pac-12 after cashing in three times against then No. 5 USC. One of those was a clutch-time kick in the game’s final minutes to seal a 30-27 upset win.

Powell then slotted all three of his attempts the next week against Oregon and was recognized again as Special Teams Player of the Week. That included a career-long 52-yarder – a milestone Powell had been waiting to hit for some time.

“I know it sounds ambitious to some,” WSU coach Mike Leach said, “but he can kick a lot further than that. He launches it, he launches it.”

Finding football

Up until his junior year of high school, Powell was confident the only kind of pads he’d ever wear were shinpads.

He scored 49 goals as a senior at Seton Catholic and played well enough at the club level to nab a tryout from the Portland Timbers’ academy squad. Powell’s select team coach was fairly confident he could’ve landed a roster spot.

But Powell also happened to be one of the best pound-for-pound athletes at his small high school and the Seton Catholic football team was getting ready for its inaugural season — Powell’s junior year.

“I think there was about 100 kids at the school,” Mark Powell said. “It was the first year, so of course he was a good athlete and I said, ‘Hey you need to go and play on the football team. They need you.’ And he said, ‘I don’t want to play football, it’s stupid.’ So I said, ‘No you’ve got to play.'”

Mark purchased a football, took his son to the nearest field with goalposts and watched Erik casually bury kicks that should’ve been challenging for someone doing it for the first time.

“We made it back to like 50 yards or something,” Erik said. “I was like, well I’m sure I can at least play for my high school.”

Another football dad shared a story from Erik’s first practice.

” ‘Coach was holding the ball for him and he kept going back 5 yards, 5 yards 5 yards,’ ” Mark said. “He goes, ‘He didn’t miss one, he hit a 60-yarder.’ ”

Soccer, the sport he’d always adored, soon became an afterthought and the Powells began shipping Erik’s kicking tapes to any college who’d watch. They didn’t get a bite, but the Seton Catholic principal, Ed Little, was a WSU alum and shared that there’d be a football camp in Pullman. Erik attended, but it didn’t seem like they were intersted in checking out kickers.

“I told Erik, ‘I know you don’t like to bother people, you need to find a coach and you tell them that your dad talked to (WSU Chief of Staff) Dave Emerick and you’re here to kick and they need to let you kick,'” Mark said. “So he starts kicking and Erik said he turned around and the guy’s on his phone and I think was calling (then-special teams coach Eric Russell). Is calling him on the phone and probably saying, ‘Hey, there’s this guy here who’s good at kicking.’ So they took him into the bubble to kick for awhile and then they offered him a preferred walk-on.”

Highs and lows

Powell arrived in 2013 and was able to shadow former WSU kicker Andrew Furney while he used his redshirt season. Powell still sends practice film to Furney for evaluation from time to time.

It’s often a love/hate relationship between a fanbase and its kicker, and Powell didn’t make a great first impression. He started the 2014 season — his redshirt freshman year — 1-for-5 and was quickly replaced by Quentin Breshears.

Powell got the job back in 2015 and had a relatively accurate season, connecting on 20-of-26 field goals including both of his attempts during a 20-14 win over Miami in the Sun Bowl.

But there was one scar that just about every Wazzu fan still remembers. In the final seconds of a home game against eighth-ranked Stanford, Powell stepped up to a 43-yarder but yanked the kick wide right, allowing the Cardinal to steal a two-point victory.

Powell was good on all five of his other field goals in the game.

Said Mark Powell: “He kind of got rushed on the field and I kind of talked to him about that and he said in hindsight he should’ve taken a timeout. … I wasn’t there, I was at home. He called me and I said, ‘Hey, great game. It’s too bad the last one didn’t go in.’ And what he said is, ‘Well, you can’t make them all.’ ”

Rest assured, shaking it off wasn’t quite that simple.

“I think in an interview last year or maybe it was the beginning of this year, he said there’s not a day goes by he doesn’t think about that,” Mark said.

“We’ve had lots of conversations over the years,” WSU special teams coach Eric Mele said, “and I think it’s been one of those things where year after year, game after game, the experience that he’s had, probably run the gamut of different situations he can be put in.”

Powell started his junior season on a sour note, missing one field goal in each of WSU’s five games. The Cougars lost two of those contests by three points.

But Powell’s rainy days as WSU’s kicker ended on, well, a rainy day.

During a wet and sloppy game against UCLA, he made his first two kicks of the season. Since then, Powell’s gone 15-for-17 on his field goals. Over the course of his career, he’s 146-of-148 on extra points. This season, he’s handling kickoff duty and the Cougars have him punting some, too.

“It’s been amazing to see and I want him to keep doing what he’s doing,” Mele said.