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June 25, 2022

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Leighton’s booming kicks have Montana State in position for national title

Camas grad joins string of Papermakers to reach next level

By , Columbian Sports Editor
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When COVID-19 scrubbed the entire 2020 Big Sky football season, Bryce Leighton made the best of a bad situation.

Just months after Leighton graduated from Camas High School, the pause in football allowed the Montana State punter to drill down on what it takes to kick at the collegiate level.

“In a way, the COVID year of us not doing anything helped out because you could focus on those little things to get better,” Leighton said.

That helped Leighton win the punting job this season for Montana State, which will face North Dakota State in the FCS national championship game on Saturday at Frisco, Texas.

Leighton has kicked in all 14 games, averaging just over 41 yards per punt. Nineteen of his 64 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line and only two have gone for touchbacks.

Jack Hathaway, now the head coach at Camas, isn’t surprised to see his former punter succeed at the next level. Hathaway oversaw special teams at Camas from 2014-20.

“Obviously he’s got leg talent,” Hathaway said. “But his work ethic is really what sets him apart. He puts in the time. That work ethic makes him trustworthy.”

Leighton is the latest in a string of Camas kickers to reach the next level. Andrew Boyle (Washington State), Michael Boyle (Hawaii) and Caleb Lightbourn (Idaho/Nebraska) have each kicked or punted at Division-I programs in the past five years.

“They get to spend a lot of time together,” Hathaway said of kickers. “It’s like the master and the student where the student becomes the master. That stuff gets passed down from one kicker to the next.”

For Leighton, 2018 all-state kicker Andrew Boyle was the model and inspiration to further hone his craft. One of the most important things he learned from Boyle was how to focus, especially during the long methodical hours of practice.

“No disrespect to anyone, but at the high school level it’s difficult to not get distracted by all the other things going on,” Leighton said. “Those guys had the ability to keep working hard and improving on what they needed to get better. They stayed focused.”

That has helped Leighton adjust to what he said is the biggest difference between punting in high school and college — the speed.

“At Camas you never worried about punt pressure,” Leighton said. “At this level, whether they’re rushing or not, there’s always a fast player back to return the ball. There’s a bunch of dynamic players at every position. You’re so much more aware of timing.”

Even though kicking at Camas doesn’t match the pace of college, Hathaway always makes speed a priority.

“The stakes are high,” Hathaway said. “We stress the timing and how everything has to be fast. A lot of kickers can make a long kick, but can you do it in a timely manner?”

Leighton isn’t alone at Montana State when it comes to players who can handle pressure. The Bobcats (12-2) finished second in the Big Sky, earning the No. 8 playoff seed and a first-round bye.

Since then, Montana State has won three playoff games, each by no fewer than 14 points.

In North Dakota State (13-1), the Bobcats will face an FCS powerhouse that has won eight national titles since 2011.

“We’re all excited,” Leighton said. “We’re focused and prepared to play our best.”

Reimer steps up

Leighton isn’t the only Camas graduate to make an impact for Montana State. Offensive lineman Rush Reimer, who also capped his high school career with a Class 4A state championship in 2019, has stepped into a big role late in the season.

Reimer took over as the starting right tackle after starter TJ Session was injured Nov. 13 against Idaho.

That gave Reimer (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) his first collegiate start in the regular-season finale against rival Montana in front of nearly 27,000 hostile fans in Missoula.

“It was my first time being in that game, first time seeing the game, and it was wild for sure,” Reimer told 406MTSports. “It’s a whole different experience. I’ve never played a game anything like that.”

Appearing in 11 games, Reimer has helped the Bobcats consistently rely on the run. Montana State has averaged 275 rushing yards in three playoff games, more than the Bobcats’ Big Sky-leading 225 yards per game in the regular season.

“I think he’s got the jitter part out of the way, and so he can just go play football and focus on being a good football player,” Montana State offensive line coach Brian Armstrong told 406MTSports. “I do think he’s going to be a really, really good player here before it’s said and done.”

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