Emily Kruger grew up playing soccer, and she played a few games this season for Cedar Creek High School, the new school in Egg Harbor City. But something was missing.
"I had talked with my dad this summer about trying football," said Kruger, who is now the junior varsity place-kicker at the school, which doesn't field a varsity team.
"I just wasn't enjoying soccer, and I'm friends with all the guys on the football team. My teammates have been 100 percent supportive. There's been nothing negative at all."
Football is arguably the toughest of sports. The physicality required to endure weeks of practices and games takes its toll on even the most fit of athletes, and the recent spate of concussions at all levels of football reveals the brutal side of it all.
That said, it takes a lot of bravery for women to take up the sport. But two area students - Kruger and Barnegat's Rupinder Kaur - have done just that.
And both girls are having the time of their lives.
"It's pretty cool. It's like an adventure every day," Kruger said. "Sometimes it's cold and rainy out there, but I love being on the practice field, and the games are special."
Kruger has been perfect on extra points this year, and she has missed her one attempt at a field goal for the Pirates, who are 7-1 and play their final game against St. Joseph at 11 a.m. Saturday. The 15-year-old sophomore from Mullica Township has two more years to try to play for the varsity program when it starts next season.
On the other hand, Kaur, a wide receiver/defensive back for the Bengals' varsity team, is an 18-year-old senior. This year, her first as a player, is her last chance to play the sport.
"This has always been my dream," said Kaur, who was born in India and has yet to see any game action. "I love football. My whole family loves the sport."
Barnegat (4-4) plays Lower Cape May Regional on Saturday at 1 p.m. in a South Jersey Group II quarterfinal.
Kruger's recent field-goal attempt introduced her to the mental side of the game, but it was on another play - an extra point - on which the physical side of football come into full focus for her.
"I did get hit by a player from the other team coming around the end trying to block the kick," Kruger said. "It wasn't a big deal. He wasn't trying to hit me. I think he just tripped, but sometimes you do think, 'Oh, gosh.' "
When Kruger missed her recent field goal, one of her Cedar Creek teammates saw how much the camaraderie of the sport means to her.
"When she missed the kick, she was so upset," said Ben Keating, a 15-year-old sophomore from Wading River. "She felt she let the whole team down. Everyone was very supportive of her, but it was cool that she felt that way because it shows that she cares."
Keating is thrilled that Kruger is a member of the team.
"She's just so consistent," he said. "She helps us score points, and we're glad to have her."
Both players' coaches welcome the extra precautions involved with having a female player. Both teams' coaches made arrangements for the girls to dress in separate locker rooms, but both Kruger and Kaur wear the same equipment as their teammates.
Rob Davis, a 39-year-old resident of the Manahawkin section of Stafford Township, is in his fifth year as the Bengals' coach. He was more than willing to accommodate Kaur's request to be a part of the team.
"She just wanted to be part of it all," Davis said. "As a team, we have a plan. We have a mutually agreed upon situation in the practices. She's not out there mixing it up with the guys in practice. But she is participating in the fitness aspect of being a football player. Rupinder's definitely a full member of the squad."
In that respect, Davis said his players don't even realize that there's a female player on the field with them.
"We match players up during practice based on comparable skill levels," he said. "So, for instance, you're not going to have a relatively raw sophomore up against a polished senior. Plus, I give the boys on our team a lot of credit. It's not like we have a team of boys and then one girl, Rupinder. We are a united team."
Tim Watson, the 35-year-old Linwood resident who coaches Cedar Creek, was generally impressed with Kruger's tryout to be the team's place-kicker. She doesn't handle kickoffs.
"She hit about 16 of 20 kicks, some of them from 35 yards out," he said. "She's a stone-cold kicker. She seems to have ice running through her veins. She's very courageous, and the guys have been very accepting of her."
Emily's dad Karl Kruger, 42, fully supports his daughter's endeavor.
"She doesn't get rattled," he said. "She really gets her head down and kicks the ball, even when the (defensive) pressure is coming hard. I'm thrilled with her level of play so far."
And will Kruger make the step up to varsity with the team next year when she's a junior?
"Definitely," she said. "There's so much passion there. We're all one big family. I couldn't even think of leaving them."
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