One of the biggest decisions many students make in their teenage years is where they will go to college. For redshirt freshman kicker Joe Philipp, the answer was just down the street.
The name “Hillsdale” that Philipp wears every Saturday isn’t just the school for which he plays football. It’s his hometown.
Philipp was born in Hillsdale; grew up in Hillsdale; played basketball, soccer, golf, and football at Hillsdale High School; and now is the starting kicker for the Hillsdale College Chargers.
Through seven games this year, he leads all G-MAC kickers with six field goals and has made 24 consecutive extra points since missing his first attempt of the season.
If you asked Philipp just a few years ago what sport he’d be playing in college, he would have said soccer.
“I wanted to play soccer in college for most of my life, but the end of my junior year came, and I started talking to some coaches about football and decided I wanted to play football in college instead,” Philipp said.
He didn’t play football until his freshman year of high school, but immediately became the varsity kicker for the Hillsdale High School Hornets.
“High school was the first time I ever put on pads and played football,” Philipp said. “My first game, I didn’t even know how to put on my pads. It was pretty funny because I was just a freshman and I was asking the older guys how to put on pads.”
Philipp said his familiarity with soccer helped him with kicking a football, but the two techniques have subtle differences.
“The main difference between kicking a football and kicking a soccer ball is on the point of contact, your knee should be locked in football, and in soccer it should be bent,” Philipp said. “Other than that, the kicking motion itself is exactly the same.”
Hillsdale High School head football coach Marc Lemerand said Philipp is among the best kickers he’s coached at the high school level. Philipp received All-State honors his junior and senior seasons.
“At the high school, we have been fortunate to have some outstanding kickers,” Lemerand said. “Joe ranks up with the best.”
Because Philipp played soccer throughout high school, he often had to switch between kicking a football and a soccer ball.
“If I would go to football practice and then play in a soccer game the next day, there were a lot of shots I would take in soccer games that would go like 40 feet over the goal,” Philipp said.
On the football field, the longest field goal Philipp made in high school was 47 yards. He attempted a 50-yard, game-winning field goal his junior season, but missed as time expired. Three years later, he believes he could make that kick if given the opportunity.
“If I need a max range, I think I could feel comfortable from 50,” Philipp said. “If there’s steady winds and everything, and we needed a 50-yarder, I think I could hit that.”
Wind is something Philipp pays attention to more than anyone else on the football field. He takes the field for warmups 30 minutes before the rest of the team, and looks for the flags on top of the uprights to gauge whether the wind is still, or blowing in, out, left, or right.
Depending on the wind, Philipp sometimes has to aim to the right or left of the goal posts for a field goal. With all of the variables involved, Philipp said the mental side of kicking is critically important.
“I think it’s more mental than anything else, honestly,” Philipp said. “The biggest thing for kickers is if you miss a big kick or something like that, what you can do is you come off the field, you’re mad for a minute or two, but then you’ve just got to flush it and move onto the next kick. Everyone’s missed a kick. Everyone’s been in the same position you are.”
Philipp said a clear mind and sharp focus is the best way to prevent nerves from taking over.
“I just try to think about my technique as much as I can before the kick,” Philipp said. “I just try to clear my mind as much as possible. If you’re getting ready to kick and you’ve got six or seven things going on in your mind, it can hurt you more than help.”
During the week, Philipp and the kickers do all the same lifting and conditioning as the rest of the team. Practices are a different experience for kickers.
“As far as practice goes, the biggest thing for kickers is over-kicking, so if you over-kick, your leg gets tired and you can’t perform as well,” Philipp said. “In practice, we do full reps of punt with the full team, and then we go into kickoff, and hit three or four kickoffs. Then we take about a half hour break and then we just hit some field goals with the team.”
Last year, Lemerand visited a college practice in the sweltering August heat to check in on some of his former players.
“I always joked with Joe about the ‘hard work’ kickers do at practice,” Lemerand said. “I stopped to watch the practice. It was very warm that day. I saw the the rest of the team practicing hard and drenched in sweat. As I walked further down, I saw Joe and the other kickers standing next to the bleachers in the shade. I just looked at them and said, ‘Yep, kickers.’”
Since graduating, Philipp returns to his high school field in the offseason to work with the current Hornets kickers.
“We are blessed to have a kid like Joe help our kickers,” Lemerand said. “Having a good kicker in high school is an advantage for extra-points, field goals, and kickoffs.”
Philipp is one of five current players on the Chargers’ football roster that played football for the Hornets in high school.
Hillsdale College head coach Keith Otterbein said recruiting a player to play for his hometown is not as easy as it may seem.
“What you’ve got to sell them is Hillsdale College is not Hillsdale,” Otterbein said. “I know from my own kids’ experience going to Hillsdale College, it’s its own community outside of Hillsdale. You’ve got to convince them of that.”
Philipp said the genuineness of Chargers’ coaching staff and the academics at Hillsdale made the school an ideal fit.
“It’s pretty hard to turn down a school like this when it’s 10 minutes from my house,” Philipp said. “It’s one of the top schools in the country.”
While some people may try to hide in a small town where seemingly everyone knows who they are, Philipp said he likes that he can go to a high school football game or walk into the Palace Cafe and recognize familiar faces around him.
With a season under his belt and a handful of big kicks already through the uprights, Philipp said playing for his hometown is something he relishes.
“It’s pretty special, honestly,” Philipp said. “It didn’t really hit me until I started the season last year. I’ve been watching these guys since I was two or three years old, and now I get to be a part of it.”