For Colorado Mesa trio of snapper Heinsma, holder Pitchford and kicker Sheehan, game-winning kick vs. Mines was 2nd nature
Those final few chaotic seconds are still a blur to Ryan Sheehan, the key player in Colorado Mesa’s game-winning field goal against Colorado School of Mines.
“I’ve had three in my career with a chance to win a game and was successful on all three, but I literally don’t remember the kicks,” Sheehan said three days after the thrilling finish to the No. 11 Mavericks’ 38-36 victory. “I couldn’t tell you anything other than us winning.”
Ditto for long snapper Tyler Heinsma and holder Austin Pitchford.
“I don’t even remember the play,” Pitchford said. “Tyler was saying the same thing. It just happened so quick. I remember going out there and I remember celebrating. It was all kind of a blur when it happened.”
The celebration, they remember. There’s video to remind them of it, with the Mavs rushing the field after Sheehan’s 33-yard field goal went right down the middle as the clock ran out. Sheehan’s celebration has gotten him plenty of ribbing from teammates, coaches and friends.
“I’ve had so many people texting me and asking me, ‘Dude, what is that celebration? What are you doing?’ ‘’ he said, laughing.
Well, what WERE you doing?
“I was just galloping,” Sheehan said. “I was just thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, we won; woo-hoo!’ I wasn’t focusing on style or looking cool; we won! It was funny.”
As he galloped toward the north end zone — think of a little kid with a stick pony if you haven’t seen the video — his teammates finally got him corralled and hoisted him into the air.
CMU coach Russ Martin kidded the three Tuesday that their late-game heroics was a simple matter of “snap, hold, protect and kick. Those guys have to work for 1.3 seconds. The goal posts never move.”
They’ve done it thousands of times, every day in practice, and after every touchdown and for every field goal the past 2½ seasons, since Heinsma became the long snapper. Pitchford has been Sheehan’s holder since they were freshmen.
Colorado Mines scored the go-ahead touchdown with 23.6 seconds to play Saturday. Sheehan, like the rest of the Mavericks, was hoping for a big return from Josh Brown.
“It would have been nice to have a really big return,” he said. “We got it to about the 35, and that set up a possibility for a drive, but that penalty (a personal foul) was a dagger. But then one big play later and Peter (Anderson) is down the sideline.”
The penalty took the ball back to CMU’s 18, but the Mavs had two timeouts and plenty of playmakers on the field. As Martin said, 20.6 seconds was plenty of time.
“I’ve never been part of a faster ending to the game. Twenty seconds,” Sheehan said. “I’ve never had to mentally focus or prepare so quickly.
“On that drive, I’m thinking we’ve got to get it close for me to even be a possibility, and then we get up there and all of a sudden they’re freaking out trying to get a couple of snaps in before we go on the field.”
“We were getting snaps when we got the ball,” Pitchford said.
“You were?” Sheehan said.
Sheehan usually starts his preparation when the Mavericks get to midfield. Anderson’s 68-yard catch and run to the 14 put him in scramble mode.
The Mavericks called timeout with 8.5 seconds to play, making sure the offense knew to get the ball in the middle of the field and call time again.
The timeout bought Sheehan enough time to get a couple of kicks into the net.
“Guys were trying to create space for me because I was trying to focus,” he said. “It was a big kick.”
So what goes through the minds of the three main players on a game-winning kick?
As it turns out, not much.
“Going out there, nothing changes, everything stays the same,” said Heinsma, who took over as the long snapper in 2015 when Derek Vander Velde, the Mavs’ starting tight end and long snapper, injured a knee. “I was honestly pretty calm out there.”
“I was nervous,” he admitted. “Especially after I botched one earlier. I was just thinking, ‘Do the same things we’ve always done. Catch the ball and put it down.’ The last thing you want is negative thoughts, like you’d better not drop it, because that’s when you bobble it.”
“Did anyone say anything to you?” Sheehan asked him.
“You mean like ‘Don’t drop it?’ No.”
“They were yelling at me,” Heinsma said of the Orediggers. “Bad snap, bad snap, bad snap.”
It was eerily quiet until the ball went through the uprights, just like they planned.
“That’s something we rep all the time, all during the offseason,” Heinsma said of the perfect snap, hold, protect and kick. “It’s like second nature for the most part.”
Pitchford and Sheehan have been CMU’s punter and kicker, respectively, the past four years. Heinsma is the new guy to the trio.
He was Grand Junction High School’s long snapper his senior year, when he was also the starting quarterback. He went to CSU-Pueblo in 2014, then transferred to Colorado Mesa. After another year as a backup QB, he moved to tight end last season. When Vander Velde got hurt, Heinsma volunteered for the job. Sort of.
“I was kind of joking around, hey, I snapped in high school, and (Pitchford) said give it a shot,” Heinsma said.
“Tyler snapped to me on the sideline and I think he became the starter the next day,” said Pitchford, who is ranked 37th in the nation in punting, with a 40.1-yard average.
He’s worked more this season on placing punts inside the 10-yard line, dropping the ball nose-down, causing it to spin end-over-end and bounce when it hits the turf.
Mesa is fourth in the nation in punt return defense, allowing minus-.20 yards per return, one of only four teams in the nation to allow negative return yardage.
So the snapper and holder were thinking nothing but good thoughts when they ran onto the field with 4.9 seconds left.
What about the All-America kicker?
“Over the years I’ve learn to train myself to think nothing,” Sheehan said. “Thinking nothing, you’re moving on instinct and second nature, so I feel like I perform better when I do it that way.
“Literally thinking … nothing.”