LUMBERTON — After missing her sophomore soccer season because of a knee injury, Alexis Ard was determined to finish her prep career at Lumberton High School with no regrets.
So she decided to make history ahead of her senior year, joining the football team to become the first female placekicker to suit up for the Pirates.
Ard doesn’t want to be a side-show or distraction. She just wants to be a part of the team.
“I want to do the best I can,” said Ard, who made a pair of extra points in Lumberton’s 40-0 win over Hunt on Friday night.
“You never know when it’s going to end. I experienced a little bit of that — missing my sophomore year of soccer — and it was really awful. I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘Man, I could’ve tried that and I didn’t.’ I just thought it would be an experience to have.””
Her best was solid on Friday, as she made her way onto the field at Alton Brooks Stadium three times, nailing a pair of extra points — and following her coach’s strict instructions in the other situation.
After a mishandled snap on the second extra-point attempt, Ard made a dead sprint to Lumberton’s sideline.
“She ran off like she was supposed to do,” Lumberton coach Mike Setzer said with a laugh. “We practiced all of that. She takes the coaching well. I told her I had enough guys out there to take care of the ‘fire’ situation, so I want you off.”
Setzer also received strict instruction from Alexis’ mother, Lisa, to “not get my baby killed.”
From the pitch to the gridiron
Normally a two-sport athlete at Lumberton, Ard is known for her skills on the soccer pitch and in the swimming pool.
As a defender for the Lady Pirates, she tallied seven goals and four assists during her junior campaign.
But this summer, the rising senior wanted to take a crack at kicking for the football team.
“I knew a bunch of kickers and field players that did it and one day I was just like, ‘What’s it like to kick a football?,’” she said. “Me and a few other girls were just messing around, kicking, and I really liked it. I thought it could be something I was really interested in.”
Joining Ard in the kicking corps are soccer players Rene Altamirano, Kendric Perry and Joan Carrillo.
But it wasn’t a smooth transition for Ard, who spent hours and hours working to find consistency with her kicks.
“It wasn’t easy when she came out,” Setzer said. “She was trying to learn. She’s not a circus act either. I watched her and told her she needed to be pretty consistent to win the job.”
After a few weeks of work, Setzer started to see the consistency he wanted from Ard, and said one of the coaches told him she had even hit a 35-yard field goal.
“Right now we have four kickers and she has become consistent enough for us to start her at extra point,” he said. “We’re so happy for her. She worked really hard.
“I’ve come out here on days when we’re not practicing and she’s out here kicking. I’ve had to tell her to watch herself in this heat, but she’s taking it serious.”
Ard’s hard work paid off Friday when she stepped on the field for her first extra-point attempt.
“My stomach was turning a thousand times,” she said. “My mind was everywhere because I was just so nervous. But then I was like, ‘I can do it, it’s the same thing as practice.’
“I zoned in and blocked everything out. I don’t even remember the people standing in front of me.”
And as she had done so many times before in practice, Ard split the uprights, with cheers from the stands and her teammates ringing in her helmet.
“It was so great,” she said. “The team has been so great.”
For Setzer, it was unlike any extra point he’d experienced during his coaching career — he just didn’t want to complicate the moment for Ard.
“I was really wanting it for her and the community,” he said. “I was thinking about how nervous she was and the one thing I didn’t want to do was ice the kicker. I didn’t want to be the one to ice her.”
But as she walked off the field after nailing the first attempt, Setzer greeted her with a high-five.
“It was awesome,” he said.
With the initial moment behind her, Ard went out for her second successful attempt like a veteran kicker, calmy splitting the uprights in a business-as-usual manner.
Adding a female to the mix
As the lone female on the football team, Ard said she’s honored to represent her gender on the gridiron.
According to the National High School Football Federation, 1,964 girls played 11-man high school football last season.
Birnettiah Killens was the first female to suit up for the Pirates, listed on Lumberton’s roster in 2001 as a running back.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “The girls I play soccer with, we’ve played together forever and to be able to represent my coach (Kenny Simmons) and my team, it’s amazing.”
She added: “People are like, ‘You’re just one of the boys,’ and I am but it doesn’t bother me. They (the boys) are just as supportive of me as I am of them. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure if they would like me or hate having a girl (on the team).”
Having a female on the team was also a first for Setzer.
“I’m extremely excited, not just because of her being the first girl for me (to coach), but the first that has tried it here at Lumberton, as far as I know,” he said. “We always try to tie things back into the school. Her participation will help other people want to come out and watch the game.”
While he’s excited about breaking new ground, Setzer is also aware of the challenges that come with having a female on a predominantly male team.
“There are a lot of different dynamics,” he said. “With there being a female, we as coaches have to figure out how to keep our logistics the same. Yeah, it’s the locker room, but there needs to be a different level of respect, but also a fine line where that respect doesn’t make her feel uneasy.
“We talk about that and (Lumberton athletic trainer) Matt Ferrell has done a great job of making sure when I have my mind on the team, he’s taking care of things with her.”
It also serves a teaching point for Setzer, who said having Ard provides a great lesson.
“We have so many bad stories around (Robeson County) and it’s just a really good story for us to have here,” he said. “We always teach our kids to include people. It’s about that and respect.”
Building off that concept, Setzer hopes the presence of a female helps his guys with how they treat women in a non-football setting.
“As a coaching staff we brought up the fact that these boys are in their most vulnerable element emotionally,” he said. “If they can control themselves around a female, that’s going to do nothing but help them out when they have families and are out in the public. We always talk about how football is teaching life lessons, so it’s another great life lesson.”
‘Just go for it’
With her first game behind her, Ard aims to continue honing her skills in hopes of becoming “just another player on the team.”
She also has a message for girls thinking about playing football.
“I would say go for it. Just go for it,” she said. “If you have a mindset that you want to try to do something and you can get out there and work hard for it, I think you can do it.
“From playing a lot of sports, team is a huge concept. Just take the bull by the horns and try it. I guess that’s what I did.”
As the season progresses, Setzer looks for Ard to become a fan favorite.
“I’m just so proud of her,” he said. “Hopefully we can get to the point where people are chanting for her.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.