Kicking it: Fitzgerald adds female touch at Fort
The Blackhawks, 4-23 the previous three seasons, are 7-1 this season and playoff bound heading into tonight's Badger South Conference showdown with Madison Edgewood.
Marie Fitzgerald has helped kick-start the resurgence.
The senior has kicked four field goals and converted on 23 of 26 extra-point attempts for 35 points.
Not bad for someone who never played football before this year and was planning on going out for cross country her senior year.
"Obviously, it's different from anything else I've ever done," Fitzgerald said. "The guys are used to me by now and have accepted me, and we're winning. That makes it even more fun.
"I was nervous the first couple of times I was on the field, especially that first field goal, but every day in practice it has gotten a little bit easier."
Although quarterback Drew Dunkleberger, receivers James Nachtigal and Shiloh Weber, and running backs Tyler Courtier and Joey Scott have provided most of the offensive firepower, Fitzgerald filled in a missing piece.
"We didn't have any boys the first week of practice that could get the job (of place-kicking) done," Fort Atkinson coach Steve Mahoney said. "I knew Marie from coaching her in summer basketball, and because of her knee injury, knew she wasn't going to run cross country and was a great soccer player. We brought her in as kind of a tryout, and she was a perfect fit.
"She's gotten better every day, to the point where she's one of the best kickers in the league. She's got a great chance to get postseason all-conference honors."
Much of Fort Atkinson's success this season has come against schools that have had the Blackhawks' number the past few years. The season started with a 16-6 win over recent state champion Reedsburg, included wins over Stoughton and Oregon, and was highlighted by a 34-26 win over arch- rival Milton.
As impressive as the win was over Milton, Mahoney believes Fitzgerald's heroics against Reedsburg played a pivotal role in the team's road to success.
"We were tied with Reedsburg 6-6 with about eight minutes to go, and she came on and put one through the uprights," Mahoney said. "We held them on their next possession. We got the ball back and scored again, and have been on a pretty good roll since then."
Fitzgerald has kept it going, too.
"She's fit in well with the guys, many of whom she has known since grade school. I don't think the fact that she is a girl matters at all. She's a teammate, and someone that has made our team better."
Fitzgerald also handles kickoffsand has become adept at pinning opponents back to their 20-yard line. Mahoney said he has confidence in the 5-foot-7, 140-pounder from 40 yards and in for any field-goal attempt.
Fitzgerald, who had surgery on her knee for a meniscus injury, said 35 yards is probably more accurate, but she has hit from 40 yards. Her longest this season is 29 yards in a win over Oregon.
Fort Atkinson will be in the Division 2 playoffs, and Mahoney believes a first-round meeting with Waterford or Wilmot could be a possibility. Both of those Southern Lakes powers are high scorers, meaning points would be plenty. That means Fitzgerald could play a role.
"I really believe if given the opportunity, I'm confident I can get the job done," Fitzgerald said.
"If someone would've told me as a freshman that when you're a senior you'd be the field-goal kicker, I would've said you're crazy. Now, it doesn't seem weird at all. My teammates, even my friends, have all accepted it."
And her performances, along the fortunes of the Blackhawks, speak for themselves.