The right leg of Caleb McGrath is a game-changing weapon for the Durango Demons.
McGrath, a senior at DHS, plays two sports in the fall for Durango High School. He is a goalkeeper on the boys soccer team as well as a football kicker. After he scored an unlikely goal to send Durango into the second round of the Class 4A boys soccer state tournament, he now will look to do the same for a football team that hopes to go even further.
“It’s a lot of fun and keeps me busy,” McGrath said of playing two fall sports. “It’s always fun to hang around the guys. The two teams, there is a very different atmosphere being around both, and that makes it fun. It’s also a great way to start the school year because I’m never struggling for things to do, and playing both keeps my grades up, too. There’s always that looming ineligibility for sports if you slip up with grades, so it’s nice to start the year with that pressure.”
McGrath, son of Jennifer and Ryan McGrath, had two shutouts and went 9-3 in goal for the Demons during soccer season. In the opening round of the playoffs, No. 21 Durango (11-6) pulled off a stunning comeback from a 2-0 halftime deficit to beat No. 12 The Classical Academy 3-2 in overtime.
It was McGrath who scored the game-winning goal from his goalkeeper position. DHS earned a free kick, and McGrath came out of his box to take it. He struck a 70-yard laser that went over the head of the Titans’ goalkeeper to send the Demons’ players crashing to McGrath in celebration and on to the second round, where they would be eliminated by No. 5 Air Academy in a 3-0 loss.
“I’ve been coaching soccer for 20-plus years, and I’ve never seen a goal like that, especially from a goalkeeper,” DHS head coach Aaron Champenoy said. “To have a free kick from 70 yards out for any player, just to put it on frame in the air is pretty impressive. To beat the keeper and hit it top corner is once in a lifetime. A magical hit with some luck on it to carry us to the next round.”
It was an unlikely goal, but it was exactly what McGrath had hoped to accomplish. Playing goalkeeper on the same end of the field in the first half, he knew The Classical Academy goalie would struggle to deal with a bright sun in his eyes.
“I could see the goalkeeper using his arms to cover and block the sun and try to see the ball,” McGrath said. “It was a great feeling. The biggest thing I’ve kind of come to realize the last couple weeks since it happened was that the whole team deserves credit for that goal.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me. Even watching soccer, I might never see that again. But I only did the last 1% of that. The guys did an amazing job to get to that point where I was in a position to score.”
The Durango football team (7-3) will enter the playoffs as the No. 7 seed and will host No. 10 Palisade (7-3) at 1 p.m. Saturday.
McGrath has made 12-of-12 extra point attempts and 3-of-3 field goals, including kicks from 21 and 27 yards in last week’s win against Pueblo East.
Because of schedule conflicts with soccer, McGrath played only four football games this season. Junior quarterback Jordan Woolverton did most of the kicking through the season and made 15-of-20 extra points and did not attempt a field goal. Carson Matz also took his turn and made 8-of-11 extra points and a 27-yard field goal on his lone attempt of the season.
When Woolverton struggled to kick, it was when he was dealing with an ankle injury. He is thankful to have McGrath back to give him a breather since he also plays safety on defense.
“We have a better chance to make them now,” Woolverton said. “(McGrath) is a great kicker, and I’m super happy to have him on our squad the rest of the year.”
Woolverton’s father, Ryan, is a coach for the Demons. He, too, made a transition to kicking a football from soccer during his high school days at Durango before he went on to kick collegiately at Idaho. McGrath said having coach Woolverton to learn technique from has been instrumental to his success.
Durango fell 35-34 to Pueblo South in what amounted to the league championship game. In that game, Durango missed an extra point, and a late kickoff was short and returned deep into Durango territory to allow South to set up the game-winning touchdown in the final minute after Durango had taken a 34-28 lead.
“We missed a few kicks against Pueblo South and lost that game,” DHS senior Everett Howland said. “Knowing we now have a really good kicker who plays soccer, it’s more of a safety valve for us. He can help us win close games.”
In a close game last week against Pueblo East, McGrath made a big play on a punt when a low snap rolled around to his feet. Much like a soccer goalkeeper, he used his hands to keep the ball safely in front of him before he picked it up and gave it a punt.
DHS head coach David Vogt didn’t hesitate to send McGrath onto the field for a pair of field goals. It was his kicks that stood as the go-ahead scores in a 20-14 game until halfway through the fourth quarter when the Demons finished off a 33-20 victory.
“Having a kicker takes the pressure off of you,” Vogt said. “When you don’t have a kicker, you’re stressing every fourth down and extra point, wondering what trick play can you do to make up for it. It’s good to not have to practice that stuff anymore and rely on a guy that’s solid.”
McGrath doesn’t only kick field goals. He has a booming leg for kickoffs and punts. Field position is so key in high school football, and the Demons will look to take advantage.
McGrath first started kicking a football as a sophomore. He kicked three games that season. A back injury brought an early end to his junior season, and he was happy to tell Vogt he would kick again this season when he could.
McGrath hopes to play either soccer or football in college. He wants to be a college athlete and is still looking for the right opportunity.
Beyond McGrath’s skill, Champenoy said he’s an invaluable teammate.
“He’s one of those kids who does behind-the-scenes stuff to make sure we have all our gear for road trips and makes sure all the guys have what they need,” Champenoy said. “It’s the unseen stuff that is so big for a team.”
If Durango calls on McGrath for a potential game-winning kick, he said he won’t have many nerves. He plans to step up to the ball in his Nike Phantom Vision Elite soccer cleats and kick with the same poise he showed in the soccer playoffs.
“It’s more than just having that moment in the playoffs,” McGrath said. “Playing goalkeeper as long as I did, I always thrived in high-pressure, high-stakes environments. For whatever reason, I don’t let it get to me.
“I’ll step into that and do the same thing in the last three seconds as I would in the first three seconds of a game. Nothing changes, it’s just another kick.”