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Wilson girl wants to punt, pass and kick her way to a national title

A trio of first-place finishes deserves a fourth. And the fourth would be a national championship. Wilson's Leslie Finch, a sixth-grader at Elm City Middle School, competes Saturday in Pittsburgh in the NFL Pepsi Pass, Punt and Kick National Finals in the girls ages 10-11 division.

Finch, the daughter of Ed and Nora Finch, finds herself in the elite company of just 32 finalists in the 8-9, 10-11, 12-13 and 14-15 age divisions.

The final four in her division include qualifiers from Seattle, Dallas and Pittsburgh.

The competition will take place before the American Football Conference divisional playoff game between the Steelers and New York Jets. A live, on-field presentation will air between the third and fourth quarters of the CBS telecast. The kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

Finch and her parents fly to Pittsburgh today.

"It feels great just to be able to have fun in the finals," the sixth-grader said of her opportunity. "It doesn't matter if I win but I would like to win." She's accustomed to only winning.

Finch started out with a first-place score of 158 points in Wilson Parks and Recreation Department competition. Next, in sectional competition in Roanoke Rapids, she topped her age group with a score of 172.

However, Finch was at her best in the North Carolina/South Carolina finals, staged in conjunction with the Carolina Panthers, with a dynamite score of 248 points.

She had to wait until all the National Football League teams completed their competition. Only the top four qualifying scores from each age division in all of the NFL finals qualified for the final competition. Finch travels to Pittsburgh with the highest qualifying score in her age group.

All participants launch one punt, one pass and one kick off a tee. Points are awarded on the basis of distance and accuracy.

Because of her involvement in softball and basketball, Finch anticipated passing being her strongest area.

Instead, her kicking has excelled and passing has been her weakest area. A kick of 92 feet off the tee proved decisive in the North Carolina/South Carolina finals.

This year's Pass, Punt and Kick competition attracted some 3.5 million youngsters from 19 states. Finch is a participant for just the second year.

"I saw the rec was doing it," she explained her introduction. "I wanted to go out and try and see what I could do."

She's done it all, and assures she will continue to be a participant until she ages out at 15.

Finch, also involved in soccer and "a little tennis and "a little golf," has been aided in her preparation by former Fike High and University of North Carolina place-kicking standout Lee Gliarmis and by Elm City Middle School's Gary Farmer and Charlie Flowers.

She dealt with an overwhelming environment at the Carolina Panthers game, but assures: "I'm going to be nervous because of the pressure of it being the national championship.

"In the Team (North Carolina/South Carolina) Championships, my knees were shaking. I had to bend down for a second. But I will be fine when the competition begins; I do much better under pressure."

Finch is understandably proud of her status as one of the few females in the national finals.

"It makes be feel good to be No. 1," she said. "Usually, guys are good at sports, and are expected to go good. When a girl pulls through and does something great, it's not that expected."

Finch, the subject of a TV interview Wednesday evening, insists she has enjoyed the traveling, the competition and, yes, the pressure.

"It all feels too good to be said," she exclaimed.