Finnish exchange student Roope Niskanen already has one Iowa kicking record to his name, and he is set on breaking another while he is here. He has hit a 65-yard field goal in practice and just missed a 58-yard attempt in a game earlier this year.
Brian Powers/The Register
AUDUBON, Ia. — The crowd is generally tame when the Audubon football team scores a touchdown. Maybe quarterback Tyler Riebhoff throws to Josh Lange in the end zone, or Nolan Smith takes a handoff and crosses the goal line. Those in the stands respond with standard claps and cheers.
Then senior kicker Roope Niskanen trots onto the field for the point-after attempt. Afterward comes the kickoff. As he settles in, the fans rise to their feet.
“We’re putting up touchdowns and putting up points, and our crowd, they’ll cheer, but they’re generally pretty quiet,” Audubon co-head coach Sean Birks said. “Then he comes out to kick off, and all of a sudden, here comes the ooh’s and the aah’s.”
Those ooh’s and aah’s emerge, in part, because of Roope’s kicking strength. Birks said it is unlike anything the 6-0 Wheelers, the No. 2 team in the Register’s 8-player rankings, have seen before.
Iowa hasn’t seen much like it, either — Roope (pronounced like ‘rope’) already has one state record this season, and the foreign-exchange student from Finland is chasing another.
For the year, his longest made field goal is 46 yards, but the day before the Audubon’s Week 4 matchup against West Harrison, he cleared one from 65 at practice.
“It’s funny,” Birks added. “That’s all people talk about in the community. We’ve never seen footballs fly off the foot like that.”
A foreign exchange student from Finland, Roope Niskanen has become a major weapon this season for the unbeaten Audubon Wheelers in eight-player competition.
Special to the Register
The attention is new to Niskanen. Back in Finland, soccer is far more popular than American football. He said he’s played soccer for about 12 years, mostly for fun with a club team. They sometimes travel to other European countries for competition. His favorite team is FC Barcelona.
But American football wasn’t a completely unfamiliar concept. Niskanen said he watched NFL games before coming to the U.S. He understood the basic rules and positions. He knows there’s kicking involved. He knows the goal, of course, is to play for touchdowns.
Still, he would’ve preferred to play soccer. But soon after he was placed through his foreign-exchange program, he discovered that Audubon didn’t offer a varsity program in the spring. That news only compounded his hesitation about coming to Iowa in the first place.
“Nothing, really,” Niskanen said when asked what he knew about Iowa before coming, “except that it’s in the middle (of the country). I originally wanted to go to California, but when I saw where I was going to be, I was like, ‘OK, this will do.’
“But it’s way better than I thought. I’m really happy I got to come here.”
Birks said Audubon has long been a landing spot for foreign-exchange students. In the six years he’s been at the school, he figures the school has had two or three each year. Some have come through and tried athletics, but not all.
When Birks learned that a 6-foot-4 soccer player from Finland was coming to Audubon, he initially thought he had a receiver. Then, during Niskanen’s first practice, that idea quickly disappeared after Birks threw him a pass. Later that same day, he tried Roope at kicker.
“That first time we saw him kick, he was a little inconsistent,” Birks recalled. “It’s a little different than a soccer ball. It takes some time to get used to. But that second day, when we were coming down the hill, the kids were just all buzzing about him.
“He was just killing the ball.”
The team kept his powerful leg a secret until the Week 0 scrimmage. Niskanen lined up for the opening kickoff and sent the ball flying out of the back of the opposite end zone. As the crowd went nuts, Birks remembers Niskanen being upset when he returned to the sidelines. He thought he kicked it too far.
Birks assured him that he can kick it as far as he’d like on kickoffs, and since then, the coach figures Niskanen has sent the ball through the uprights as many as eight times this season — and the crowd reacts accordingly.
“It was a completely new thing to me,” Niskanen said. “I heard the crowd go, ‘Whoa!’ during that first kickoff. I was like, ‘I’m going to love this sport.’”
Through six weeks games, Niskanen has blossomed into a weapon for the Wheelers. Of his 68 kickoffs, 54 have resulted in touchbacks, currently the most in the state regardless of class. He’s 49-for-58 on extra-point tries, good for 84.5 percent. In the three seasons prior to his arrival, Audubon’s kickers combined to hit 53 of 88 PAT attempts.
Even more, Niskanen dented the state record books when he hit 10 extra-point tries, which ties for the third-most in 8-man history, in the Wheelers’ Week 3 victory over Coon Rapids-Bayard. Two weeks later, he set a new mark when he went 13-for-13 on PATs in Audubon’s 91-14 win over River Valley.
“He’s huge for us,” Birks said. “We’re having a great season. We’re looking forward to continuing that. We have a kid that can kick it through the end zone and start the other team on the 15. And we don’t have to worry about two-point conversions. Last year, that was one of our biggest problems. I spent a ton of time this summer and offseason diagramming two-point tries.
“Typically, in 8-man and even in Class A, a lot of teams don’t even try to attempt the PAT. They just figure out their two-point stuff and go with it. Last year, that’s basically what we moved to, all two-point conversions. We figured if we can make 50 percent of them, we’re coming out ahead. That was a big emphasis this year.
“Then he shows up and takes the pressure off.”
Niskanen has only attempted four field goals this season, mostly because Audubon is too busy scoring touchdowns (54 via the offense; 60 total). All four attempts came last week in a 69-14 win over Boyer Valley. Among those kicks, he hit from 46 yards out. There was an attempt from 58, but the ball bounced off the crossbar.
The longest made field goal by an 8-man kicker is 50 yards, from Sam Honold of Coon Rapids-Bayard in 2014. Birks said with the way Audubon has beaten up on teams this year, he wants to try and get Roope to clear at least a 51-yard attempt before the end of the year so he can have the record — his 46-yarder currently ties for the fourth-longest in 8-man history.
Birks has Niskanen practice for the record-breaking attempt at least once a week. On the first Tuesday in October, Niskanen goes through his normal routine. He starts by stretching, then attempts from 20 yards out and backs up 10 yards after every made kick, while his teammates pepper him with encouragement.
“Hey Roope,” one says, “I bet you can’t hit the scoreboard.”
“Rope it in there, Roope,” adds another.
After Roope misses one wide left from 40 yards, a third teammate chimes in: “He kicks it farther barefoot.”
Roope smiles, then knocks his second 40-yard attempt through with ease.
Off to the side, Birks just laughs.
“It’s easy to make friends when you’re the kid that can go out and kick it 60 yards,” he says. “Everybody wants to be friends with that kid.”
Eventually, Roope makes his way back to 55 yards. Rain swept through earlier in the day, making the Wheelers’ game field a tad muddy. The holder finds a spot to place the ball for a clean kick. Roope misses the first attempt, then takes a deep breath and lines up again.
The snap is smooth. The hold is good. Roope takes two steps and sends the ball flying toward the south goalpost, end-over-end. It clears the crossbar. His teammates stand up and give him a smattering of high-fives, and Roope can’t help but smile.
“I don’t know how I would describe that,” he said when asked if he were to do that in a game. “That would be so awesome and beyond my imagination to do something like that. It would be huge.”
Cody Goodwin covers high school sports, college basketball recruiting and Drake athletics for The Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.