The punt bounced off Justin Fitzgerald’s helmet and right into the hands of Gilbert Highland’s Chip White, who took it into the end zone.
Highland’s fans went crazy. Their team had just taken a 9-7 lead over Mesa Red Mountain in the fourth quarter.
But then the referee placed the ball on the 23-yard line, and the realization set in:
You can’t return a muffed punt.
With the score still 7-3 Red Mountain, Highland’s offense, rather than its special teams, came out onto the field, and Fitzgerald was ready for some instant redemption. The senior safety immediately picked off a Highland pass in the end zone, the second gut-punch in as many plays for the home team. Red Mountain scored two possessions later to go up 14-3, and held on to win by that score in a Division I contest Friday night.
“It was a crazy sequence. When he sees the film and sees it hit off the top of his head, he’s going to be hiding in the film room,” Red Mountain coach Ron Wisniewski said of Fitzgerald. “But you know what, though? That kid played a great game.”
Fitzgerald did indeed, recording three interceptions as part of an impressive defensive showing from his team. Red Mountain (8-2) forced six turnovers in all, as Highland (6-4) couldn’t get out of its own way at times.
“We had some costly turnovers and penalties,” Highland coach Pete Wahlheim said. “Our kids played their hearts out, but we just can’t turn the ball over that many times.”
It was a defensive struggle throughout, as the first and third quarters both went without a score from either side. Red Mountain knew it would be facing a challenge offensively, as it was playing without senior quarterback Mason Thorman, who was suspended for violating team rules, according to Wisniewski.
Junior Brennan Dobson stepped in for Thorman and played admirably, completing 12 of 19 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns. He showed a nice scrambling ability and good decision-making, only making one ill-advised throw that was intercepted toward the end of the game.
“I prepare every week the same, and I just got my chance this week,” Dobson said. “I was a little shaky at first, but at the end some good things happened and we won the game.”
Wisniewski said Thorman will return next week to “compete for his job,” as Red Mountain prepares for its first-round playoff game. Highland, who came into Friday’s contest at No. 14 in the Division I power rankings, will have to wait for the seedings to be announced Saturday to see if it is still in, or if the loss knocks it out of the top 16.