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Mount Olive NJ football kicker Izzy Kolbusz is first female player

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MOUNT OLIVE — Izzy Kolbusz doesn’t stand out when the Mount Olive High School football team runs down the hill to Al Nicholas Field. A 5-foot-11 senior, Kolbusz wears the same red and gold jersey as the rest of the Marauders.

She is Mount Olive’s kicker, responsible for extra points and an occasional field goal attempt. She is also the first female player to suit up for Mount Olive’s varsity team in the program’s 51-year history.

“Boy, girl, who cares?” Marauders coach Brian O’Connor said in an interview. “We don’t want to leave those points on the field.”

Before home games, Kolbusz spends hours hanging out with her teammates in the boys’ locker room before the squad’s dinner and a pregame meeting. Few people see her get dressed and ready herself in the girls’ soccer locker room before she rejoins the boys − with a knock to get their attention and make sure she doesn’t see or hear anything inappropriate.

So far this season, Kolbusz has made 10 of her 15 PAT attempts in her first three varsity games. She’s missed two field goal attempts thus far, both against West Morris on Sept. 8, though one was the result of a bad snap.

Mount Olive visits Morristown on Thursday night for a meeting between unbeaten SFC Liberty White teams.

“It’s been super cool,” Kolbusz said. “It’s awesome. After the first game, (the) nerves kind of settled down. I have more time. I don’t have to rush it. I can take a deep breath, take a second.”

Not just summer fun

Mount Olive defensive coordinator Dave Benfatti first raised the possibility of Kolbusz kicking back in February. After the Marauders’ kickers all graduated, the topic came up again when Kolbusz and some of her flag football teammates helped out at a youth football camp in July.

The girls helped the kids run a few drills. At the end, Benfatti and assistant coach Robert Merle asked them to try kicking.

Kolbusz hit a 40-yard field goal, shocking the Mount Olive coaches.

The offhand query quickly morphed into a serious discussion about Kolbusz joining the varsity football team.

“Me and the boys were like, ‘Get her a jersey now,'” senior offensive guard Jeremiah Medina said. “All the seniors, we were hyped about it, really excited. We made it seem like she’s part of the family now. We didn’t really care if she was a girl or not.”

Izzy, her parents Ralph and Edyta Kolbusz, and O’Connor pondered possibilities while down the Shore on July 4 weekend. Her parents were quickly on board, which surprised even Izzy. The Mount Olive girls soccer team had three goalkeepers, so she didn’t feel like she was letting down her longtime teammates too much.

Kolbusz had played soccer since first grade, shifting from forward to center back, and finally teaching herself to be a goalkeeper as the COVID pandemic shut down the world. This was supposed to be her senior season at Mount Olive, her last chance to kick the ball around with her friends.

She still is, but in a way she never considered.

“It was a really cool opportunity,” said Kolbusz, whose soccer teammates have made supportive posters for the football games. “It’s paving the way for someone else. If a girl wants to join the team, they know it’s not impossible. It’s something else they can do. They can play.”

From flag to fall football

Izzy grew up watching football with her father, a former lineman at Columbia High School, the University of Maine and Montclair State. When Mount Olive launched a spring flag football team for girls, Izzy Kolbusz was one of the first to sign up.

Launched locally in 2021 by the New York Jets and Nike, NFL flag football – which is five-on-five and uses a smaller, lighter ball – has not yet been recognized by the NJSIAA. This spring, there were 52 New Jersey teams playing from mid-April until the state final on June 10, which was held at the Jets’ training facility in Florham Park.

Nine states sponsored girls flag football in 2021-22, with Georgia boasting 176 teams according to the National Federation for State High School Associations.

Kolbusz played wide receiver, then tight end, and linebacker on defense. She was also the Marauders’ punter.

There were 45 New Jersey girls playing traditional football in the fall of 2021, according to NFHS data – a blip compared to the nearly 27,000 boys.

Not alone: How sophomore is tackling gender barrier in Shore Conference football

On the field, Kolbusz tucks her long, dark blonde ponytail into the back of her jersey to avoid attracting unwanted attention.

She doesn’t think most opponents notice her gender until the postgame handshake line. After an August scrimmage, some of the players from West Side congratulated Kolbusz approvingly with, “That’s what’s up!”

“If she was playing nose guard or middle linebacker on varsity football, there’d be some questions, but she’s kicking,” said Ralph Kolbusz, a Livingston police officer.

“She doesn’t have that typical girl stature. That helps. In today’s environment, it’s just easier for her, more accepting. She’s a tough cookie. She can handle it, no concerns. She’ll stick her nose in it if she has to.”

On technique and tackling

Though Kolbusz has had a few kicks blocked, she hasn’t had to tackle anyone during a game yet.

“Thankfully,” she quipped.

Medina said it’s the offensive line’s job to protect Kolbusz, like any other kicker. But she does individual drills alongside the Mount Olive safeties, just in case she has to stand up for herself.

“That’s definitely what comes with (playing goalie): fearlessness. You can’t be scared at all or it doesn’t work,” Kolbusz said. “(Tackling someone) is a little scary, but if you do it right, it doesn’t hurt. Going in is intimidating, but once you do it, it’s fine. I guess that’s everything with sports. If you think about it, it makes it a lot more difficult and you mess up your technique.”

All three Mount Olive kickers train twice weekly with volunteer coach Mark Hazen, who walked on at William Paterson in the mid-1990s after playing soccer and baseball at Hanover Park. Where soccer balls are kicked on the instep, an oblong football is struck more toward the top of the foot, “the left side of the shoelaces,” according to Hazen. But the kicker’s movement, using the whole body to propel the leg through the air, is very similar.

In practice, Kolbusz has been consistently accurate from 30 to 35 yards.

“When I started showing her stuff, in my head I was thinking, ‘Don’t overwhelm her. Don’t throw the book at her,'” said Hazen, who has coached kickers at FDU-Florham and Wayne Valley.

“She was like a sponge. She was absorbing it and doing it.”

Jane Havsy is a storyteller for the Daily Record and, part of the USA TODAY Network. For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis, subscribe today.

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