Football: Blue December – Fitzgerald’s heroic return leads Decatur into third round

By Reece Waddell | Published Saturday, November 25, 2017
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Sweet Comeback

SWEET COMEBACK – Decatur senior wide receiver Dane Fitzgerald kisses the 4A Division I area championship trophy after the Eagles’ win over Andrews Friday. Fitzgerald, who missed nine games with a broken sternum, returned to action Friday and caught the game-winning touchdown. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Dane Fitzgerald had not played a snap for the Decatur Eagles since breaking his sternum on Sept. 8.

It took more than two months of rehab, but Fitzgerald made his anxiously awaited return on the biggest stage Friday night.

BACK IN ACTION – Decatur receiver Dane Fitzgerald fights for yardage after making a catch against Andrews. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

With the lights shining the brightest – perhaps with a tint of blue – Fitzgerald came up clutch, hauling in the game-winning touchdown pass to send Decatur past Andrews 55-48 and into the 4A Division I regional round.

“This guy right here with what he’s gone through with a broken sternum in week two, I’ve never had a player who’s had as big of an impact as Dane had while he was out,” said coach Mike Fuller. “We’re finally glad to have him back on the field.”

After forcing an Andrews punt with just more than seven minutes remaining, junior quarterback Wilson Hicks led the Eagles on their game-winning touchdown drive. Hicks converted several third downs before eventually finding Fitzgerald on a slant over the middle.

With multiple defenders draped on him, Fitzgerald dragged two Mustangs over the goal line and into the end zone for the 17-yard touchdown.

“It’s a good statement for my senior year,” Fitzgerald said. “I love my teammates and I love my family. I wouldn’t be here without them.”

While the second half was dominated by defense, the first half was a complete offensive shootout. Decatur and Andrews combined for 77 points in the first two quarters, matching each other score-for-score. At one point in the second quarter, the Eagles and Mustangs had scored 63 points in just more than 19 minutes of play.

But the offensive shootout would not last.

Despite scoring on the opening drive of the second half, Decatur’s offense went into a rut until Fitzgerald’s touchdown grab. The Eagles turned the ball over on downs on three consecutive drives in the second half.

Decatur held a double-digit lead in the second half and a 48-42 advantage going into the fourth quarter. But Andrews rallied back with senior quarterback Jace Keesee scampering into the end zone to tie the game at 48 with less than 10 minutes remaining. The Mustangs missed an extra point with a chance to take the lead.

Andrews would not score again as the Decatur defense held twice down the stretch to force a Mustang punt and turnover on downs that eventually put the game away.

With the victory, Decatur advances to the third round for the first time since 2013. It is also the first time under Fuller the Eagles have advanced past the area round.

Decatur will take on District 4-4A Division I foe Hirschi at 7 p.m. Friday at the C.H. Collins Complex in Denton. The Eagles lost to the Huskies 69-36 earlier this season at home.

“We’re very ready, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity,” Hicks said of playing Hirschi again. “Last year we played Stephenville twice, and it was hard to beat them twice. We know it’s going to be hard for Hirschi to beat us twice.”

This time, the Eagles get to do battle against Hirschi with Fitzgerald on the field instead of on the sidelines.

“[Dane] means a lot,” said senior receiver Mario Reyes. “When he went down, it was kinda like the team went down. We just had to stick through it for him because we knew we were going to get him back if we could [make it] deep in the playoffs.”

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