LONGMONT -- Even though it was only PE class, where the level of intensity can range from the outrageously competitive to the completely lackadaisical, Silver Creek football coach Mike Apodaca couldn't help but be continuously impressed with Ross Fitzgerald.
No matter the sport of the day, Fitzgerald never failed to turn heads with his fierce competitiveness and obvious athletic skills. It's the sort of combination common among standout varsity athletes.
In this case, though, Fitzgerald would have been better described as a weekend warrior. He had played running back in eighth grade but never attempted to ply his skills for any of the Raptors' varsity programs.
Knowing he had several holes to fill from last year's Class 3A state runner-up squad, Apodaca made a sales pitch of sorts to Fitzgerald about joining the Silver Creek football team. To say it has been a perfect match would be a gross understatement.
Fitzgerald, a junior, has quickly developed into one of the most opportunistic defensive backs in the state. Although he is garnering acclaim for his knack for nabbing interceptions, Fitzgerald and the rest of the Raptors' defense will be focused on stuffing the prolific rushing attack of Conifer when the teams collide Saturday afternoon in the state semifinals at Trailblazer Stadium in Lakewood.
"He was in my class last spring, and he was just a great competitor," Apodaca said. "I think a lot of people would assume all athletes get after it in PE, and that's not necessarily the case. Some play harder than others, but Ross was always right in the middle of things. It didn't matter what game we were playing, his athleticism showed.
"More importantly, his competitive nature showed. We talked to him about coming out and found out he'd played some. It had been a while, but we stayed on him to give it a shot."
Playing a versatile role at safety -- Fitzgerald has spent time at both free safety and strong safety -- the junior has performed like a seasoned veteran in the Raptors' secondary. Fitzgerald leads all of Class 3A with seven interceptions, and he has made several key takeaways during Silver Creek's postseason run.
Fitzgerald has recorded an interception in each of Silver Creek's state tournament victories, including one to seal the Raptors' second-half rally against Pueblo Central last week. Fitzgerald recorded interceptions in three consecutive games earlier this year in victories against Centaurus, Summit, and Holy Family. He also posted a two-interception game against Roosevelt.
"They went to state last year, but it seemed like they needed some help since they lost a lot of seniors, and I wanted to come out and help," Fitzgerald said. "They put me at DB and it's gone well. Staying on someone has really clicked for me. Staying in a zone is really not my thing. I like getting interceptions, so I like man.
"Once I got to four I started thinking maybe I could beat (the team record). It's just kind of come along."
Although Fitzgerald currently is tied for the team record of most interceptions in a season, he may be challenged to set that mark against Conifer, if only because of the Lobos' penchant for running the ball. Conifer boasts two runners, Matthew McClintock and A.J. Eleniewski, who have surpassed 1,100 yards this season while leading a rushing attack averaging 327.8 yards a game.
Silver Creek will need to slow the Lobos' ground game in order to make a repeat appearance in the 3A title game that few predicted at the outset of the season.
"It's all worked really well. The linebackers and D-line, they've really helped me become the (player) that I am," Fitzgerald said. "I'm not really a free safety this week. I'll be more of a strong safety for the run support. We kind of change our defense every week as we need to, and this week we have to stop that run."
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