Special teams haunted the Rocky Mountain High football team all night.
One Grizzly punt went for one — as in a single — yard. Rocky Mountain muffed countless punts. And the Grizzlies’ punt coverage surrendered a big return to set up an early Capital score.
So before Rocky Mountain senior John T’ia trotted out to receive a punt with just over a minute left, special teams coach Tim Souza told him to be safe and fair-catch it.
But T’ia lied.
“In my head, I said, ‘No,’ ” T’ia said. “But I was like, ‘Yes, coach,’ in person.”
He fielded the punt at his own 32, made a quick move inside and broke down his own sideline for a game-winning, 68-yard punt return with 56 seconds left, handing No. 1 Rocky Mountain a 28-21 victory over No. 5 Capital.
“He’s gifted, talented,” said Rocky Mountain coach Chris Culig, who was run over by the convoy on the sideline on its way to the end zone. “We didn’t have a return on. We were in safe (punt return). We were holding guys up, so it’s really get what you can get and hope for the best.”
The punt return capped a wild fourth quarter that saw Rocky Mountain take a 21-13 lead. But Capital tied the game at 21 when Ryan Hibbs hit Tavita Reupena for an 18-yard TD pass, then found Carter Johnson for the tying two-point conversion with 3:26 left.
Capital opted to punt facing fourth-and-1 at its own 33 with 1:12 left, and a Rocky Mountain special teams unit that struggled all night redeemed itself when it mattered most.
“My boys were resilient to just let it go,” T’ia said. “That’s tough for them. For us to regroup and get things back rolling was amazing.”
Both teams’ defenses owned the first half, but the Grizzlies rallied in the second half behind quarterback Will McMullin. After going 3 of 7 for 32 yards in the first half, the senior completed 18-of-29 passes for 222 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
“He found a rhythm,” Culig said. “When a quarterback gets in rhythm, it allows us to have some success on offense.”
Capital’s loss marks its second heartbreaking defeat to Rocky Mountain in as many years. The Eagles drove the length of the field in last year’s regular-season matchup toward the go-ahead score only to have the Grizzlies make a goal-line interception as time expired.
Capital coach Todd Simis pointed out the Eagles bounced back from that loss last year to reach the state championship game.
“It’s painful to lose and there are lots of things we can get better at,” Simis said. “I told them last year if we keep working hard and progressing we’re going to be there at the end. I feel the same way tonight.”
Rocky Mtn 28, Capital 21
CAP — Chase Miller 20 field goal, 7:12
RM — Keegan Echevarria 3 run (run failed), 11:56
CAP — Miller 25 field goal, 2:12
CAP — Alec Bindner 55 pass from Ryan Hibbs (Chase Miller kick), 1:27
RM — Jerrik Lattimer 3 pass from Will McMullin (McMullin to Bo Stevens pass), 9:41
RM — Bo Stevens 23 pass from McMullin (Kyle Van Tonder kick), 6:00
CAP — Tavita Reupena 18 pass from Ryan Hibbs (Hibbs to Carter Johnson pass), 3:26
RM — John T’ia 68 punt return (Van Tonder kick), 0:56
RUSHING — Capital: Abe Turpen 2-1, Tavita Reupena 8-38, Sam Sessou-Djokoto 17-35, Carter Johnson 1-0, Jordan Godeny-Scott 1-1, Ryan Hibbs 4-14.
Rocky Mountain: Kyle Van Tonder 2-3, Carter Kuehl 12-55, Tre Page 6-13, Will McMullin 9-17, Nick Romano 2-4, Keegan Echevarria 8-20, Jerrick Lattimer 2-9.
PASSING — Capital: Hibbs 12-24-1 176. Rocky Mountain: Page 0-1-0 0, McMullin 18-29-0 222, Colby Jackson 2-4-0 23.
RECEIVING — Capital: Reupena 5-47, Gavin Murray 2-42, Alec Bindner 2-67, Gavin Piva 1-14, Johnson 2-6. Rocky Mountain: Zach Irwin 1-7, Bo Stevens 9-111, Connor Croft 1-5, John T’ia 1-8, Brayden Hamilton 2-29, Lattimer 6-85.