Friday, Aug. 20, 2004 | 9:26 a.m.
Sergio Aguayo didn't have to worry too much about dealing with large crowds while growing up in the small Southern California city of San Jacinto.
"There are less than 30,000 people in my hometown," Aguayo, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound placekicker, said of the city 85 miles east of Los Angeles and 90 miles north of San Diego. "We'd get our biggest crowds when we played Hemet because they were our rival.
"There would be probably two or three thousand people at that game."
There will be roughly 50 times that many people in the stands when Aguayo makes his college debut on Sept. 5 when the Rebels play at Tennessee. Neyland Stadium's capacity is listed as 104,079, but a few thousand more can be crammed in for some games.
"I'm fired up big-time for this," said Aguayo, who replaces second-team all-Mountain West Conference kicker Dillon Pieffer on PATs and field goals this fall. "This is something that I've been working toward since my sophomore year in high school and it's finally going to pay off."
Aguayo was regarded by some scouting services as the top prep placekicker in Southern California at San Jacinto High School in 2002. He made 11 of 16 field goals his senior year, including 55- and 57-yarders, and boasted a 92 percent touchback rate on kickoffs.
A number of schools including USC recruited Aguayo. But the Trojans backed off at the last minute when they ran out of scholarships on what would become the nation's No. 1 rated recruiting class.
"I'd go to their games and I'd talk to their coaches and everything," Aguayo said. "Then one day their special teams coach called and said they couldn't offer me (a scholarship) because they had just two scholarships left and they were going to (prep All-American wide receivers) Steve Smith and Whitney Lewis."
Aguayo said he got over the disappointment when Rebels head coach John Robinson made a visit to his home.
"For him to come out there for a home visit like that said a lot," Aguayo said. "I was very happy to get a scholarship to a great university like this. I love it here. Everybody is always so upbeat."
Aguayo redshirted last fall but was fortunate enough to travel with the Rebels.
"I've warmed up and got to see what it's like in the opposing locker rooms and everything," he said. "It taught me what to kind of expect this year. It was awesome."
Still, warming up isn't quite like trying to kick field goals before 105,000 screaming fans in Neyland Stadium.
"I don't really care if it's a small college or if it's a big crowd, it's still a game," Aguayo said. "You still have to go out there and kick it and do what you do."
Aguayo, a former soccer goalie who was good enough to play in the Olympic Development League before switching to football his sophomore year of high school, has some big cleats to fill. Pieffer left UNLV as the third-leading scorer in school history (231 points) and connected on 20 of 25 field goals as a senior, including a 50-yarder in the Rebels' 37-35 upset of New Mexico.
However, Pieffer also had two key chip-shot misses for the Rebels. He shanked a 23-yarder with 2:38 to go that would have given UNLV a 9-point lead in a 24-23 loss to Colorado State. And he also missed a 24-yarder in the second half of a 27-20 overtime loss to BYU. If he had made just one of those kicks the Rebels likely would have been Las Vegas Bowl-bound.
"You really can't think about those kinds of things," Aguayo said of the big misses. "My old high school coach used to tell me that the kicker is the dumbest player out there because if you miss a kick you can't think about it. You just have to forget about it and go out and kick again. And if you make it, well, coaches expect it from you. That's something they coach you to do. You can't get too excited or emotional."
Even if you do it in front of 105,000 people?
"I can't wait," Aguayo said. "That's going to be awesome."