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BOGACZYK: Haig Home for Holliday and Boca Bowl

Justin Haig hugs Doc Holliday at last week's team banquet.
Dec. 19, 2014




            BOCA RATON, Fla. – If Marshall place-kicker Justin Haig wanted to sing, in the spirit of the holiday season, he could belt out: “I’ll Be Home Before Christmas.”

            The Herd has certainly been able to count on the redshirt senior from nearby Lake Worth … and so he really is home, ready for his final Marshall game in the familiar surroundings of FAU Stadium in the first Boca Raton Bowl against Northern Illinois (11-2) on Tuesday night.



            Coach Doc Holliday’s 12-1 Conference USA champions arrived here Friday after a 6 a.m. practice indoors at home, and after deplaning in mid-70s temperatures at West Palm Beach, the Herd headed to a welcoming party in Delray Beach – appropriately at a bowling establishment where plenty of players were really rolling.

            Haig, who gained his second MU undergraduate degree last Saturday, said it seems strange to finish his career in his backyard.

            “It’s really weird; it’s something you dream about,” Haig said. “Five years at Marshall, I play about 50 games, and it’s crazy how it works out my last football game will be at home. It’s crazy.

            Haig’s Lake Worth home is located between Boca and West Palm. He transferred for his junior and senior high school seasons to American Heritage School in Boca Raton, “2-3 miles from FAU Stadium,” the 5-foot-7 kicker said.

            Back then, Haig was being recruited by Holliday, who was then scouring the Sunshine State for talent for West Virginia, where he was associate head coach. There is a special bond between Holliday and Haig – and not just because the kicker does the best imitation of the head coach among the Herd.

            “Coach Holliday was recruiting me at WVU, and I thought I’d get his offer from there,” Haig said. “As soon as he came up to Marshall (for Holliday’s first head coaching job), he offered me. I think I was one of 16 kickers only out of high school to get a scholarship that year.

            “I’ve always appreciated Doc. I wasn’t heavily recruited, but he stuck by my side and one of my motivations in my college career has been to prove him right. Other coaches passed me up, but Doc stayed by my side, and that’s a little extra motivation – to prove it to and for the guy that’s been in my corner the whole time.”

            Two weeks ago, Haig booted four field goals – including a career-long 46-yarder, to help the Herd to its 26-23 C-USA title win over Louisiana Tech. Haig was voted the game’s MVP. He previously had booted two game-winning, last-second field goals – a 45-yarder in 2012 at home against Houston and in his previous return home, with last season’s game-ending 41-yarder for a 24-23 win at FAU.

            Asked whether sending a game-winner through the uprights or getting four field goals – tying the Marshall single-game record while setting the C-USA Championship record – was bigger to him, Haig didn’t hesitate with his answer.

            “I’d take the championship,” he said. “My number was called six times (including two PATs) and we converted every single time. It was just gratifying because it was the biggest stage possible, the championship game, and that was our goal as a team, winning a championship.”

            Then, three days after Marshall won its first C-USA title, the all-conference team was announced – first team, second team and four honorable mention place-kickers. None was named Haig – despite the fact that he will finish his career ranked No. 4 in C-USA kick points, although he’s been the Herd’s principal kicker only three seasons.

“I scratched my head on that one,” Haig said, smiling, “and then I realized I’m a conference champion, and that’s really what matters.”

            With two points in the Boca Bowl, Haig will become the Marshall career kick points leader. His 336 points trail only Tim Openlander’s 337 (1994-96). Haig also is just seven points away from Openlander’s single-season mark of 130, set in the Herd’s dinal NCAA Division I-AA season of ’96.

            Haig already owns the MU point-after record of 216, although he scored only four points (one field goal, one PAT) as a 20111 redshirt freshman. He needs one field goal to match Openlander’s 42 for No. 2 on the Herd career list, behind Dewey Klein’s 54 (1988-91)

            How tough was it to be patient through redshirt and reserve seasons?

            “As a competitor, you want to be out there and I was hitting the ball really well, beginning of that (2011) camp,” he said. “I wasn’t supposed to be kicking that much, my leg died and Tyler Warner did a great job, ended up having a great career and beat me out.

            “And it was a learning experience for me, helped me mature, work my craft and develop.”

            He appreciates the fact that he will leave Marshall with multiple kicking records, and he’s done so following a major transition this season. When backup quarterback Blake Frohnapfel graduated and transferred to UMass, Haig lost his kick holder of two seasons.

            Last spring, punter Tyler Williams began catching 2014 all-conference long snapper Matt Cincotta’s snaps to tee it up for Haig.

            “Let’s just say I was very, very, very concerned, because Blake did a great job,” Haig said when asked whether he worried about the transition to a new holder. “And Tyler has stepped in and done a really good job as well.

            “Especially as a kicker, you’re trusting him. If you’re getting a kick off in 1.25 seconds, you’re going … as soon as he lifts up his hand. All your trust is in the snapper and holder. So, it took some time to develop chemistry, but Tyler did a great job this year.”

            When Haig came to Marshall, there’s no way he could have expected to finish his career so close to home. Neither Florida Atlantic nor FIU – down I-95 in Miami – was in Conference USA then. There was no bowl in Boca. Now, the inaugural game is the only bowl matching conference champs outside the two College Football Playoff semifinals.

            “I’m going with the same approach as every game,” Haig said. “It’s a big game, my last game, and Northern Illinois is a very good team. So, it’s very important every time I’m on the field to put points on the board. It’s never a good thing when a kicker leaves points on the board.

            “Being home for me, I wouldn’t say it’s extra pressure. I’d say it’s extra excitement. Maybe 45 minutes before the game, I’ll see my whole crew in the stands and I’m sure that’s going to be extra pressure, but when it comes to game time, I won’t be thinking about that.

            “If I go out in the game, I’m not thinking about who’s in the stands or anything like that. It’s all about focusing on doing the job.”