UW-La Crosse punter Christian Hallingstad stood alone in a corner of the practice field Tuesday, staring at a blue plastic trash barrel.
Then from about 40 yards away, Hallingstad booted a football on a high trajectory and it landed within inches of the barrel.
Close counts in punting, and there are few athletes in NCAA Division III who can launch a football as consistently on target — or simply boom it as far as it can go — as Hallingstad.
“We’ve got a guy who is a weapon,” Eagles coach Joel Dettwiler said.
UW-La Crosse (1-0) plays Northern Michigan (0-1), a Division II team, at 6 p.m. Thursday in Marquette, Mich.
Hallingstad, a senior from Cumberland, Wis., ranked third in Division III in punting average (42.6 yards) last season, also setting a new school record, and was named to the All-WIAC first team. He also was named to the D3football.com 2012 pre-season All-America team.
“When someone told me that I was in the spotlight like that, it was overwhelming at first,” Hallingstad said. “It was very satisfying to have all the hard work pay off.”
Hallingstad was a difference-maker for the Eagles in their 21-17 season-opening win at North Central (Ill.) on Sept. 1.
With the offense struggling, he punted nine times for an average of 46.2 yards, with a long of 62 and three placed inside the 20.
Hallingstad made one of the key plays of the game when he was called on with 36 seconds left and the Eagles holding a four-point lead.
Punting from his own 47, Hallingstad drilled a 51-yarder out of bounds at the 2, burying the North Central offense, which turned the ball over two plays later.
Suddenly, the punter was a celebrity.
“The players were congratulating me, (offensive coordinator) Reed Hoskins hugged me, and (athletic director Josh) Whitman shook my hand,” Hallingstad said.
Hallingstad has developed the ability to punt for distance, direction or both. Last season he placed 20 punts inside the 20 and hit 14 over 50 yards.
Dettwiler said he knows how important that can be and is not taking it for granted.
“It’s a chance to change the field,” Dettwiler said. “We can go from our 10 to their 10. It’s a way for us, if our offense is struggling, to make their offense struggle.”
Hallingstad worked hard to hone his punting skills. He played wide receiver and punted “by default” at Rice Lake High School.
“I just got it downfield in high school,” Hallingstad said. “When I came here, they asked me to kick directionally and I’d never done it before.”
So Hallingstad figured it out on his own. UW-L does not have a kicking or punting coach, so Hallingstad said he went online to find drills.
And he punted. A lot. Hallingstad averaged 36.3 yards per attempt as a freshman and 35.2 as a sophomore, then got serious.
“It was a lot of reps, learning technique and weightlifting to get my leg stronger,” he said.
This past summer, Hallingstad hit about 60-80 punts per week and estimated he got in about 600 total reps, usually working out by himself.
“You have to love what you’re doing because sometimes it’s hard to be motivated when it’s hot outside and you’re out there by yourself,” he said.
Hallingstad doesn’t have to worry about being the overlooked guy on the team anymore.
“I’ve learned that when you’ve got a good punter, he’s as valuable as any offensive or defensive player,” Dettwiler said.
HEALTHY SQUAD: Senior right guard Justin Petersen is doubtful for Thursday’s game with a lower body injury, Dettwiler said.
The good news is that the Eagles have depth at that position, with senior Ross Schultz, a starter last year, moving in.
ROAD TRIP: The Eagles face a grueling road trip for Thursday’s game. They will leave around 7 a.m., travel seven hours, play the game, then turn back for La Crosse, expecting to return around 3 a.m.
“I talked to the seniors how they wanted to do it and we wanted to do it this way, get back and wake up at home Friday,” Dettwiler said. “I’m impressed; it’s been a blue-collar attitude about it: ‘Let’s just go do it.’”