Football: Shorthanded Aspen outlasts Pagosa Springs
September 15, 2012
ASPEN – Dan Schwartz had nowhere to go.
All running lanes disappeared mere moments after the Aspen fullback secured the handoff on fourth-and-1 from the Pagosa Springs 26 late in the third quarter Friday night. He tried to bounce outside, but a Pirates defender closed in for the tackle.
No matter. Schwartz, a player often criticized for running too high, lowered his shoulder and initiated contact, knocking the Pagosa Springs player onto his back. Schwartz sprinted toward the end zone, slowing up near the goal line to pump his fist and flash a smile.
The Skiers had done it again.
They had found a way.
For a second straight home game, Aspen had erased an early deficit. This time, they trailed by 14 late in the second quarter and were without injured starters Luke Rider (quarterback) and Casey Hornburg (tailback). While their offense sputtered as expected, the Skiers were opportunistic on both defense and special teams. Behind three touchdowns from Schwartz and a late stand near midfield, they hung on for the 21-14 victory – their third straight.
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“We knew it was going to come down to defense and come down to heart,” Schwartz said. “We wanted it so badly, and we took it to them.”
It was Pagosa Springs (0-3) that controlled this contest in the early going. The Pirates were content to hand off to bruising tailback Clay Ross on the game’s first possession, and the senior responded. He routinely dragged undersized Skiers defenders for extra yards, and Pagosa methodically marched 80 yards in 10 plays. It was aided by a pair of Aspen facemask penalties.
Ross finished things off with a 7-yard touchdown run, giving the visitors a 6-0 advantage.
“We feared they would line up and come right at us because they’re big, as you saw,” Skiers head coach Mike Sirko said. “In their first two games, they threw the ball a lot and had a lot of turnovers, but they pulled it together. … They’re a team that was in the playoffs last year, so we knew they’d be a good club.”
Aspen failed to generate much of anything – it fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, then turned the ball over on downs and went three-and-out on its first two possessions. On the latter, a Skiers punt sailed just 13 yards, setting the Pirates up at their own 49.
Pagosa capitalized, engineering a
13-play drive that chewed up nearly six minutes. Eight of those snaps went to Ross, who dove in from the 1 for a touchdown. On the ensuing two-point conversion attempt, he caught a pass over the middle to extend the lead to 14.
“It seems like we get hit in the mouth, and then respond,” Schwartz said. “We need to pick up the intensity immediately on the first kickoff.”
Aspen responded on the next kickoff. Sophomore Ryan Fitzgerald, filling in for Hornburg, fielded the ball inside his own 20, tucked it securely in his left hand and rumbled 81 yards before being tripped up at the Pirates 4.
Schwartz scored on the next play for the Skiers, who trailed 14-7 at the break.
An energized Aspen squad wasted little time pulling even. The Skiers went three-and-out on the opening drive of the third quarter, but their defense came through once again. Ross was stripped on the ensuing possession, and sophomore Harry Ferguson dove on the ball, setting up the Skiers at the Pagosa 16.
Later, on fourth-and-3, Schwartz evaded a rush, cut back and scored to tie the game.
“Danny came through with some big plays on the goal line,” Sirko said. “It’s one of those things where I’m glad we’ve got a few of those seniors. It’s nice to have guys like that step up and take charge.”
Schwartz took charge late in the third, helping Aspen pull ahead for good.
“I just kept my feet driving, and it worked out. I was lucky I got to the end zone,” he said. “I knew I was going to get some extra carries and was going to do a little more work tonight. I’m glad I was able to help the team out.”
Schwartz and the Skiers defense helped the state’s 10th-ranked team seal this dramatic victory.
After forcing a three-and-out to get the ball back at their own 24 with 4:11 remaining, the Pirates strung together a host of positive plays and moved toward midfield. There, Schwartz and Fitzgerald broke up passes from Pagosa quarterback Dean Scott on first and second downs.
Scott was gang-tackled in the backfield on third down. Then, with little more than a minute to play, the junior signal caller momentarily scrambled out of the pocket before being swallowed up once more.
“The defense was on the field the whole game,” Sirko said, “but they found a way. That’s really all I can say.”
Added Schwartz, “The defense made big stops for the whole second half. We’ve worked so hard. We weren’t going to give this one up.”
The road gets tougher from here. Next week, the Skiers visit No. 4 Bayfield, a 42-0 winner over Basalt on Friday.
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