Even after finishing his final exam of the school year, Loyola rising junior Nate Van Zelst wasn’t done with his work that day.
Instead of celebrating his freedom from tests for a few months, Van Zelst went to the football field. The presumptive starting place-kicker and punter this fall practiced for nearly two hours by himself before beginning his summer break.
While he already has experienced success in high school and ranks as one of the best in the country, Van Zelst continues to strive for perfection.
“I’ve been told that you want to practice so much that you get bored doing the same thing over and over again,” he said. “But I don’t get bored. I love it.”
The defending Class 8A state champion Ramblers started offseason practice June 6, and Van Zelst is one of a few players returning with experience. Loyola head coach John Holecek admitted it’s a luxury to have talented and seasoned kicker.
“He’s extremely dedicated, and he’s a guy who could swing a lot of games for us,” Holecek.
That was clear when Van Zelst made his first varsity appearance as a freshman. In cold, rainy and windy conditions on the road, he kicked converted a 30-yard field goal in a 17-10 win over Edwardsville to help the Ramblers to the Class 8A state final.
As a sophomore, Van Zelst’s 37-yard field goal at the 6:27 mark of the fourth quarter sent Loyola to a 13-3 win over Brother Rice and the Class 8A state championship.
“I’ve always loved being part of intense games,” Van Zelst said. “I think I handle the pressure well.”
In his first full season, Van Zelst went 14-for-17 on field goals, with a long of 38 yards. He averaged 35.5 yards per punt, with a long of 61.
“I’m not a kicking coach and don’t want to be one, but I want a kicker I can trust,” Holecek said. “He’s one I can trust.”
Ever since agreeing to be the kicker at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview, Van Zelst has been hooked. A self-starter, he practices at least twice a week during the offseason and has gone as far as shoveling snow at Loyola’s Hoerster Field to get in reps.
Furthermore, Van Zelst has worked with Wisconsin-based Kohl’s Professional Camps since his freshman year, primarily under the tutelage of Joe Gardner.
Born in Australia, Gardner was a professional rugby player before moving to the U.S. with the goal of becoming an NFL punter. When that didn’t work out, he joined the staff at Kohl’s in 2015.
Right away, Gardner noticed Van Zelst’s talent. What impressed Gardner was his desire and dedication to learn and improve.
“A lot of it comes down to commitment and understanding all that it takes to be really good,” Gardner said. “The only way to truly get better is spending time on the field practicing, and that’s something he loves to do. He’s always excited, and that makes my job easier.”
Following his sophomore season, Van Zelst participated in invitation-only camps across the country. Among the perks was receiving individualized instruction from those proven in the craft, including New Orleans Saints’ place-kicker Wil Lutz and Austin Siebert, who kicked for the Oklahoma Sooners and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns this year.
Lutz shared insight into his expert mechanics as well as offered invaluable advice on his approach, according to Van Zelst.
“He doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on in the game,” Van Zelst said. “He blocks out all of the noise and focuses only on his job.”
As of May, Van Zelst is the No. 13-rated kicker in the Class of 2021 in Kohl’s national rankings. Will Reichard, No. 1 in the Class of 2019, will be a scholarship player at Alabama as a freshman. All of the kickers in the Class of 2019’s top 12 are attending programs in the Power Five.
Although Van Zelst will enter his junior season as one of the country’s top kickers, he isn’t satisfied with his current standing. Which is why his training program goes beyond what he does on the field.
Van Zelst has increased his time in the weight room, concentrating on explosive movements, such as box jumps and power cleans, that enhance his quick-twitch muscles. He also records his kicking sessions and analyzes each one.
“He’s a gifted athlete, but he’s a gifted worker,” Gardner said. “Those who take it to the next level are never happy with where they are.”
Two recent Loyola graduates have kicked in college. Mike Kurzydlowski (Class of 2015) appeared in 29 of 30 games in his final three seasons at University of Chicago. He made 78.9 percent of his field goals, 97.5 percent of his extra points and averaged 35.1 yards per punt for his career. Patrick Tata (Class of 2016) will be a senior kicker at Illinois Wesleyan. As a junior, he appeared in all 10 games and went 7-for-10 on field goals and 35-for-41 on PATS.
“My motivation is to get to the top, and I’m not there yet,” Van Zelst said. “I can always get better.”
Photo credit: Margo Grogan/Sports Depiction