When it comes to a new football season, the very first goal on a team's radar is to get those first points up on the scoreboard. This was a task that the Pusch Ridge Lions failed to accomplish in their opening game to the 2012 high school football season against Joy Christian, a game they lost 36-0.
That shutout provided motivation for their most recent matchup against Empire High School on Aug. 31 on their home field. Despite a 48-28 loss, the Lions were content knowing they have the ability to score.
"It felt awesome to be honest," sophomore running back Taylor Fitzgerald said of the first touchdown, which he delivered with a 26-yard carry. "It feels great to just be able to help the team out in any way I can."
Fitzgerald secured those points on Pusch Ridge's second drive of the game, after failed initial possessions by both teams.
The Lions gained advantageous field position by shutting down the Ravens on defense, resulting in a punt return to the Empire 36 yard line by freshman running back Aaron Tverdy. The extra point attempt after the touchdown was blocked, but the 6-0 Pusch advantage marked not only their first score, but also their first lead of the season.
Tverdy and Fitzgerald are two of a whole group of young players who have stepped up the past two weeks in the wake of injuries to more experienced upperclassmen. Considering their current handicapped roster, first-year Lions Head Coach Troy Cropp is pleased with what his team showed on Friday night.
"We just made a few mistakes, you get rid of those and that's a whole different ballgame," Cropp said. “Considering we're starting two freshmen and four sophomores on defense, I couldn't be happier. We get healthy, and the whole season changes."
The Lions regained possession on the Empire drive following the first touchdown, after freshman linebacker James Raica recovered a Raven fumble near midfield. Pusch Ridge was unable to gain much ground, and were forced to punt to the Ravens, who managed to score on the ensuing drive off a 28-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Grayson Weeks to wide receiver JJ Gretta. A succesful extra point ended the first quarter with Empire up 7-6.
The Lions made their first crucial mistake in the first drive of the second quarter, as junior quarterback Jacob Frithsen misread the coverage, resulting in an intercepted pass by Empire’s Charlie Ashworth, which he proceeded to take all the way to the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown return. That put the game at 14-6. This was one of a few key blunders that cost the Lions in the contest.
"Some things we can improve upon are our defense and secondary, and just some of the offensive mistakes, but those are easy to fix," Fitzgerald said.
Pusch Ridge was able to tie the game up at 14 off multiple passing gains to senior wide receiver Parker Gotcher, including one to score third and goal. The Lions were successful on the two-point conversion to knot the teams up, and it appeared they had regained momentum.
However, the game began to spin out of control for the Lions before halftime, as Empire recorded three unanswered touchdowns to enter into the locker room at halftime with a 20-point advantage at 34-14. The final touchdown of the quarter came off another pick six, as Albert Phillips returned an interception 75 yards to score.
“Empire's an unbelievable team," Cropp said. "They're a perennial playoff team; the coach over there knows what he's doing and has got a great team. So I'm just happy we were able to hang with them. Take our mistakes away, and we're neck and neck with them."
Fitzgerald and Gotcher proved to be the Lions' star offensive players in Friday's matchup, as both played significant roles in multiple touchdowns. Fitzgerald added another 26-yard touchdown carry in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 34-21, and intercepted an Empire pass on the succeeding drive to give the Lions the ball back. Gotcher caught several passes for big, and important gains, in the fourth quarter as Pusch attempted to mount a comeback.
"Fitzgerald worked really hard in the offseason to get to where he’s at today," Cropp said. "Parker dropped several balls last week on key passes, and he showed resilience. He was frustrated with his performance, and he came back and played good football."
Fitzgerald was happy with the team's improvements over the previous week, but he refused to boast about his own accomplishments, instead noting ways to get even better.
"Our offense worked a lot better," Fitzgerald said. "The line did a lot better than last week. Obviously there's always room to improve. My game personally, I can hit the holes better and I can make better decisions coming off some blocks."
Even though the Lions lost by 20 in the end, the final score of the contest is misleading. The team shined in a lot of areas, and showed major growth over the opening game's disappointing result.
Also, with some of their key players out and expected to return in the upcoming weeks, Coach Cropp is very optimistic about where his squad can go from here.
"Our goal is to get healthy, and get our juniors and seniors back who are out," Cropp said. "And then just stick to the fundamentals and execution. Football's about blocking and tackling, so we're not going to get too complex but just get better at the basics."
The Lions will look to notch their first victory in the standings this coming Friday, Sept. 7. They will once again play on their home field, hosting Phoenix's Arizona Lutheran Academy.