Positives come late in opening loss
His mentor’s left ankle shelved and shrouded in a red-white-and-blue sock, and later nothing but an ice bag, sophomore Austin McCaw amazingly ensured that the affluent visitors remembered only the Bobcats’ red.
Thrown into Ignacio’s opening night football clash against Class 2A Aspen with 2:39 left in the first half — when junior incumbent Adison Jones was first sent to the trainer’s table — the diminutive backup quarterback spoiled the Skiers’ night on Ignacio’s first drive of the fourth quarter, then rubbed salt into the wound on his team’s second-to-last possession with a second touchdown pass to senior Clayton Jefferson.
“Not the first game of the season,” McCaw said afterwards, alluding to the ironic timing of Jones’ injury, leading to his entrance. “That was kind of unexpected, and it was pretty fun when I got out there.”
“Losing Adison … it hurts. And we were kind of debating what we were going to do with that, said ‘You know what? Austin’s been working. … He’s more than willing to step in there,’” said head coach Lupe Huerta. “And we’ve got to pass; we can’t just run the ball, because all they’ll do is stuff up the box.”
Did the scores deny AHS a road victory? Unfortunately, no.
“It was a satisfactory season-opener, but there’s definitely things we need to work on. We need to come out harder,” said Skier running back Ryan Fitzgerald after Aspen had prevailed, 39-12 at IHS Field. “We didn’t have a perfect game; a few quarters, we were slacking off … so we need to pick it up next time.”
But did the strikes give fans and coaches something to praise — in lieu of last season’s 56-0 hammering — and ponder for next week’s trip to Pueblo to face another 2A program in Dolores Huerta Prep?
Yes. Especially when considering that offensive-line starters Josh Gallegos and Alex Lopez were also both on the sidelines — the former with jersey and pads off, an ice bag protecting his left elbow — when the Cats (0-1, 0-0 1A Southern Peaks) finally denied AHS (1-0, 0-0 2A Western) the shutout.
“I never lost confidence,” McCaw (unofficially 8-of-18 for 137 yards) said, “They did a great job, and we just did a lot better than last year.”
A one-yard TD plunge by Skier Wyatt Young (8-35 rushing) with 6:41 left in the first — capping the team’s 8-play, 67-yard initial drive — put Aspen ahead 6-0 (John Heaphey’s PAT kick went wide left), but it was all AHS could muster during the opening 12 minutes under lightning flicker-filled skies.
That is, until Fitzgerald finished an 11-play, 63-yard surge with 10:14 left before halftime (the drive had begun with 2:39 left in the first after a Wyatt Hayes punt) with a four-yard TD run. But Hayes denied the two-point conversion pass, keeping Ignacio close at 12-0.
And though their offense had been solid via well-disguised handoffs out of a stacked “I” formation behind QB Tyler Tick (10-67, TD rushing; 2-for-3, 14 yards passing), the Skiers took firm control of the game shortly after arresting the Bobcats’ best drive yet. Starting at their own 31, seven plays with Jones under center moved IHS down to the AHS 30.
But Jones (3-for-9, 45 yards; 5-17 rushing) was then sacked by No. 3 back to the 36, had a pass to Jefferson batted down by Tick, a throw to Hayes denied by Ben Belinski — bringing up fourth-and-16 — and a pass dropped by Hayes, resulting in a turnover-on-downs with 5:46 left before the half.
“That was huge, you know?” Fitzgerald said of the stop. “We [also] had Matt Sovich with the fire: He really drove the attitude, was jumping up and down, and that really pumped up the defense.”
And re-stoked the offense; seven plays later, Aspen was back in the end zone, with Fitzgerald (18-154 rushing, 3 TD) charging in from 28 yards and still 3:06 left before the half. Heaphey’s kick again slid left, but the 18-0 lead would hold into intermission — and Jones would take one last hit under duress, courtesy of Aspen’s Luke O’Callaghan with 5.7 seconds remaining.
Fitzgerald struck again starting the third quarter, slicing in from two yards out with 9:33 left to cap a 7-play, 57-yard drive, and Heaphey at last connected with the extra point to make the margin 25-0. And after a 39-yard kickoff return by Adam Herrera (5-12 rushing, 1-21 receiving) put the Cats in business at their own 44, a Herrera fumble went into the hands of Sovich just 59 seconds later.
The Skiers again capitalized, with Tick taking the football in from three yards to wrap up another 7-play, 57-yard push, and Heaphey’s leg increased the score to 32-0 with 6:06 still left in the frame. Quickly, Hayes was again forced to punt on Ignacio’s next series, and AHS again responded by plowing 57 yards via nine consecutive runs including Kai Love’s two-yard score with 0:01.3 left on the clock.
Heaphey tacked on the PAT, but the Cats began the fourth with something special.
After a holding penalty on the first snap moved them back to their own 28, McCaw hooked up with Hayes, and the erstwhile basketball player reversed his direction multiple times, avoided putting a knee down once by balancing himself with his hand, spun off a hit that stood him up straight, and ultimately gained 44 yards (probably 70 when counting the east-west adventures) down to the Skiers’ 28.
“I think it picked up our spirits a lot,” McCaw said, “and just helped us score touchdowns.”
Four plays and a five-yard penalty later, McCaw tossed a perfect pass to Jefferson in stride up the left sideline, where only the Cat could somehow cradle it with his torso and left hand (while AHS cornerback Oscar Solis was blanketing his right side).
“If Austin can do that with those receivers and that line, then we’re going to be OK,” Huerta said.
McCaw’s two-point pass attempt to Hayes failed, but four plays after Skier Chapin Newhard fell on Hayes’ onside kick, Ignacio’s Antonio Torres da Silva pounced on a fumble at the Bobcat 40 and 9:10 remaining in the game. McCaw took some lumps by a pair of sacks, but another completion to Hayes had the crowd roaring to keep trying for another touchdown.
The drive ended in a Hayes punt, however, but after the defense forced AHS to go three-and-out at their own 31, Bobcat Nick Herrera partially blocked a Heaphey punt and the generously rolling ball eventually died at the Ignacio 38. With 3:41 left, McCaw began the locals’ final scoring bid with a 14-yard hookup to Hayes (4-85 receiving) and a 28-yarder to Jefferson (6-76) down to Aspen’s 24.
Cleverly underthrowing the receivers — intentionally or not — McCaw missed his next two passes, but pass-interference calls after each put the ball on the Skiers’ six. Charles Rohde moved the pile down to the one, and after misfiring at Hayes, McCaw successfully lobbed the TD the other way to Jefferson.
“I was just thinking I’ve got to do the best for our team, try to put out as much as I possibly can,” McCaw said. “Coach just said, ‘Stay relaxed.’ So I tried to stay relaxed and it just fell into shape.”
And it nearly had yet another chance to; Hayes’ pooch kick went into open space behind the first tier of Aspen’s kick-return team, and a full-speed Adam Herrera did his best softball slide to smother the ball at the AHS 43 with 1:51 left. But four plays later, Newhard, flagged for interference while defending a pass to Lorenzo Pena the previous play, intercepted McCaw near the eight to ice the outcome.
“Our problem: We weren’t getting off the ball early,” Fitzgerald said. “Everyone, as a team, wasn’t playing like we should have. But we ended up working it out.”
“These kids kept plugging along,” said Huerta, particularly impressed with Ignacios special teams efforts. “And we’re going to work; we don’t expect to be perfect right now. … Yeah, we want to win the games, but as long as we’re improving … by the time we get to league, that’s where it becomes important.”