Gross misses bus, not final kick

By Mike London, The Salisbury Post

VALDOSTA, GA -- No one’s been the central character in more heart-thumping Catawba dramas over the last few seasons than place-kicker Matt Gross.

Gross has known happiness. Last season’s winning kick against Carson-Newman that signaled Catawba’s arrival on Division II’s national stage, for instance.

Gross has also known abject misery. That blocked potential game-winner at Carson-Newman on Oct. 27, for example.

Yesterday, Gross was huge in a positive way one more time in Catawba’s 37-34 overtime stunner at Valdosta State. Gross calmly kicked the tying point in the final seconds of regulation, then the winning field goal on Catawba’s first overtime possession.

The real kicker to this story is that Gross almost didn’t make it to Valdosta, which is roughly 520 miles from Salisbury.At least he very nearly didn’t make it with the rest of the team.

The Indians’ buses pulled out of Rowan County on Thursday morning. Gross’ No. 12 was aboard one of the vehicles, but the veteran booter, who has his name etched all over the Indian record books, wasn’t.

Catawba coach David Bennett broke that news in yesterday’s postgame press conference. The country coach, always eager to relate a strange story, jumped in when reporters were quizzing Gross about his feelings as he made his clutch kicks.

“Yep, Gross almost got left,” grinned Bennett. “We’re getting down the road. We’re in Kannapolis. The coaches are watching a movie and then everyone starts pointing and saying ‘Outside, look outside!’ ”

What was outside the bus was not Santa and eight tiny reindeer, but something even more remarkable. It was Gross, driving his jeep at a speed best left unreported, frantically motioning for the Indians to pull over so he could join the Georgia-bound caravan as a passenger.

Gross had overslept and had missed the departure rendezvous. And apparently no one had noticed. To make a long story short, the buses were halted.

“We told Matt he could ride, but he’d have to ride on the offensive bus,” said Bennett. “I heard the cheers for him when he got on there.”

Eventually there would be hundreds of cheers for Gross on Saturday. Perhaps even louder was the stunned silence of 4,000-plus Valdosta fans when he drilled his winning kick.

Gross revealed there were more butterflies accompanying the PAT he knocked through after Catawba had closed to 34-33 with eight seconds left in regulation than on his winning field goal with the score tied.

Makes sense. Fans assume those PATs to be automatic. But kickers know otherwise. A lot can go wrong between snap, hold and boot. Not to mention those desperate 6-foot-5 guys flying at you.

Bennett has all the faith in the world in Gross because, while there have been a few memorable misses in his career, there have been many more magical makes. When Catawba won the toss for overtime, a victory scenario was already playing itself out in Bennett’s active imagination.

“Our defense goes out and stops ‘em. We send in Matt and Matt makes the kick to win the game,” he said.

Which is exactly how it happened.

After its defense held Valdosta on four downs, Catawba was in position to win with a score of any kind. It ran the ball three times up the middle as Gross loosened up his limb.

“With the athletes Valdosta has, we weren’t going to be throwing it around and taking chances,” said Bennett. “Not when we have a kicker like Gross.”

When the Indians turned matters over to Gross from 35 yards away, some prayed. Some looked the other way. Most just got ready to celebrate, even after Valdosta coach Chris Hatcher called the obligatory freeze-the-kicker timeout.

“I’ve been there before,” said Gross. “The team has a lot of faith in me when it comes down to it. All I was thinking was to get under it so they can’t block it.”

Gross, No. 3 in the nation in field-goal makes per game this fall, kicked this one so high that even Tim Duncan standing on top of Shaquille O’Neal’s shoulders couldn’t have gotten a finger on it.

And it was as straight as the 50-yard line.

“I knew it was good,” said Gross matter-of-factly.

Game over.

But the questions for Bennett weren’t quite over.

What would have happened, an inquiring mind wanted to know, if Gross’ jeep hadn’t had the horsepower to catch the team buses.

“We might have been in some trouble there,” answered Bennett.

“But I believe Matt would still have found a way to get down here. After all, he’s a senior.”


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