SURPRISE – As the school year dwindled last spring, the Paradise Honors High School football team was in dire need of a kicker for the upcoming season before a 16-year-old forward on the soccer team came to the rescue.
It wasn’t someone from the boy’s soccer team, though.
The new kicker was Hayley Horner, who was named the Skyline Region Offensive Player of the Year last winter as a sophomore forward on the Paradise Honors girls soccer team.
Horner, now a junior, had kicked her first football during a freshman-year physical education class, and although it was just for fun, she surprised everyone (including herself) because the kick sailed right through the goalposts.
After continual persuasion by the boys on the team and the school’s football coaches, and with the support of her family, Horner began to take the idea of being a football kicker seriously.
“It was almost a joke at first,” she said. “I didn’t really think I was going to be kicker. And then I sent in some of my clips to the coach, and he looked at them, and he saw potential.”
That 16-year-old goofing around kicking a football in her P.E. class is now a determined kicker who has proven that she belongs on the football field as much as anyone else and potentially stands a successful extra point away from helping her team win the 3A state championship as the third-seeded Panthers face No. 4 Tucson’s Sabino High School in Saturday’s title game at Mountain Pointe High School.
Horner’s boot is behind every extra point, field goal and kickoff for her team. And if the title game comes down to an extra point or field goal, she’s prepared to win it all.
“Hopefully my team is winning and (the game) doesn’t come down to (an extra point or field goal),” Horner said. “But if it does I am ready to kick.”
Once she told her dad, Brent Horner, about how often the players were telling her she needed to be on the team in the upcoming year, the two began to take action to perfect her football kicking skills.
Although the roughness of the sport was unnerving for Brent in the beginning, he knew his 5-foot-10 daughter could hold her own.
“I kind of took her up to the park that had a soccer goal that she could just kind of aim at that a little bit, as far as height,” he said. “And she was really good at it. I was shocked.”
This summer, Horner started working with the coaches on the football field and soon she was no longer just a soccer player. She was a football player. A kicker. And so far, her first season has been full of accomplishments.
In the 10 games she’s played, Horner has made 23 extra points and has kicked for 2,278 yards in 56 kickoffs with four touchbacks for the 11-2 Panthers. Her kickoffs have averaged 40.7 yards with a long of 60 yards. In October, Horner was named The Arizona Republic’s High School Athlete of the Week for her standout performance in a game against Yuma’s Kofa High School, in which she booted two kickoffs for touchbacks, converted nine extra points and totaled 455 yards on 11 kickoffs.
Horner went into her new sport not knowing what to expect as a girl playing a sport dominated by boys. It is a rarity that comes with some awkwardness and challenges, but that never steered her away.
Although being the only girl in a locker room full of boys was not something Horner was accustomed to, the discomfort didn’t last long as the team adapted quickly, never making her feel that she didn’t belong.
Rather, her male teammates welcomed her with open arms.
“It was probably awkward at first, having a girl (in the locker room),” Horner said. “But they got used to me, and they treat me as a teammate now. It’s not even like having a girl around. It’s just like having another teammate and a friend.”
Josh Goodloe, Paradise Honors football coach, said Horner’s work ethic has made an impact on the team. When she asked if she could come out to start working with the team, Goodloe was more than happy to have her.
However, Goodloe also made it clear that Horner had to do the work and prove she was capable of doing the job.
And she cleared the bar there, too.
“People see that she shows up,” Goodloe said. “Even though she just does kicking, that she still comes out and works hard with the team every day. She doesn’t just come out one or two days a week. She’s here every day.”
Paradise Honors special teams coach John Denise described Horner as a very coachable player who does what she is asked to do – and always asks questions. It’s clear that she wants to be out there on the field.
“Hayley’s got the ability,” Denise said. “She’s a very good performer, and she also is very, very dedicated. She has the desire, which is very important in football. You have to want to do this. It’s not an easy sport.”
Horner strives to make all her extra points, and although she’s been blocked a few times, she has yet to miss any. Her main goal on kickoffs is to boot the ball as far as possible, and hopefully get touchbacks in the process.
“Stepping on the field and having that pressure on you, especially with extra points, I think it really motivates me,” Horner said. “And the team, the guys are so supportive. It really helps in games.”
Senior running back Logan Pruett feels that the energy in the locker room this year has been different than in the past three years he has played on varsity, and in the best way possible.
Horner’s presence has made a difference.
“With her in the locker room, and her energy, it just radiates to everyone else on the team,” Pruett said.
Pruett said the team feels protective over Horner, but not because she’s a girl. Rather, because she’s a teammate.
“She doesn’t baby out of things,” Pruett said. “If something’s hard, she’s going to do it. She’s not just going to be like, ‘Oh I’m a kicker I’m not doing that.’ She’ll go through everything with us. And so I think that’s what really built the team around her.”
Horner’s first season, although successful, hasn’t come without adversity.
She went into the season with a pulled groin, causing her to miss four games this season. Although the pain still lingers, her physical therapy has aided in pushing through the pain and continuing to play.
Of course, there’s a level of concern for other injuries to occur on special teams, but the uneasy feeling of Hayley’s parents began to wear off as time passed with the understanding that a kicker isn’t on the field for the same number of plays as a wide receiver or linebacker.
“You kind of realized that she’s going to be OK,” Brent said. “It’s always that chance that you know someone’s going to hit her, or she’s going to have to get involved in a tackle or something. … There was a kid that ran a kickoff back a little bit and she wasn’t quite sure what to do. But she kind of just got in his way and threw an arm in there a little bit and the guys were all going nuts.
“She didn’t tackle him, but she got in the way a little bit. And after he saw that and she fell down after it and everything but it was OK. You realize she’s OK. She’s got these pads on. She’s got a helmet on. She’s going to be OK.”
Her dad shared a specific memory that stands out to him when he thinks of his daughter on the field. It came during her first game back from injury against Show Low High School where she had her full strength back. She had her first touchback off a kickoff and made all seven extra points.
“She finally got a touchback, which was kind of the big thing,” her dad said. “Like here’s this girl that can hit it all the way downfield and get a touchback. Not just barely kicking it down there somewhere … a real big moment at first where I’m kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my daughter. She’s doing that!’”
Brent said he’s proud of his daughter stepping out of her comfort zone, trying a new sport and being successful at it, especially when all she’s known her whole life has been soccer.
Hayley’s power behind the ball was developed on the soccer pitch and now it’s helping her on the football field. She began playing soccer around the age of 4 and is going into her third season on the Paradise Honors varsity. In 31 games she has scored 53 goals with 27 assists, averaging about 1.7 goals per game.
Time management is a challenge now that she is a two-sport athlete, and Horner has had to learn how to balance the workload while playing for her club soccer team and the football team simultaneously. With football practice three times a week, club soccer practice, games for both sports and her studies, Horner’s schedule is hectic.
But her dedication to both sports is keen.
There are some nights where she won’t get home from a football game until 2 a.m. and has to be at the soccer field at 7 the next morning. Other days, she has football practice and goes directly to soccer practice afterwards.
Fortunately, her high school soccer season begins Nov. 29, lending her the perfect transition as her football season comes to an end Saturday.
Pruett said Horner’s kickoffs aren’t just paying off in games. She helps get the team prepared for opposing special teams because she has a leg and can replicate other kickers. Her impact on the team has shown through her hard work and dedication.
“She’s not going to let anybody tell her she can’t do something,” Brent said. “There’s always the critics that are like ‘Oh my God, why is this girl playing football?’ She doesn’t let any of that stuff bother her.
“She’s like, ‘I can do this, I know I can do this,’ and she goes and does it.”