ASPEN - Aspen quarterback Rex Christensen faked a hand-off to tailback Nicky Ufkes, spun around, tucked the ball and took off running toward the end zone.
"All I saw was that little orange post and a white jersey screaming toward me," the senior said. "I knew I'd be diving."
There was no hesitation. Christensen leapt head-first and dove across the goal line just as two Hotchkiss defenders converged on him.
In an instant, 40 minutes of frustration became a distant memory. In an instant, both the large home crowd and the Skiers sideline could exhale.
Aspen had completed the improbable again.
Last week, the Skiers rallied from 19 points down to top reigning Idaho 3A state champion Shelley. Friday, they erased a 15-point deficit against visiting Hotchkiss, one of 1A's top programs.
Christensen's 5-yard scamper with 8 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter gave Aspen its first lead at 29-22. Quinn Morehead picked off a pass on the ensuing Bulldogs possession, then workhorse Ufkes, ailing hip and all, picked up three key first downs to run out the clock and preserve a second dramatic victory in less than a week.
For the Skiers, ranked third in The Denver Post's 2A poll, 3-0 never felt so good.
"We showed a lot of adversity and got the job done," said Ufkes, who rushed a school-record 47 times for 231 yards and two touchdowns. "That's what kind of team we are. Nothing is going to stop us. Nothing is going to hold us back.
"We knew this was going to be a war. A 48-minute war."
It took the visitors just 13 seconds to deliver this battle's opening blow. Hotchkiss running back Jamie Rodriguez fielded the opening kickoff at his own 5-yard line, then took off up the far sideline, rumbling 95 yards untouched for the touchdown. Less than a minute later, he hauled in a screen pass and scored on a two-point conversion to put the Bulldogs ahead, 8-0.
"We came out flatter than a pancake," Aspen head coach Mike Sirko admitted. "I even gave some of my best speeches [this week]. I'm sorry, they didn't work."
Hotchkiss was hardly intimidated. After all, it played the Skiers tough in a loss here in 2008, and were one of two squads (Olathe) to hand Aspen a regular-season defeat last fall.
The Bulldogs punched in another score in the final minute of the first quarter, on a 23-yard scamper from Rodriguez, to extend their lead to 15. Skiers cornerback Casey Hornburg picked off Hotchkiss quarterback Ryan Spor on the opening play of the drive, but he was stripped during the return and handed the ball right back to the Bulldogs. They made Aspen pay with a nine-play, 56-yard scoring drive - one that included a fourth-down conversion on a fake punt.
While the Skiers had no real trouble moving the ball in the opening half, they continually came up short; two drives of 12 or more plays ended with missed field goals. In addition, Christensen was largely ineffective, completing just 4 of 15 pass attempts and throwing one interception in the first 24 minutes.
"You know, I was jittery from the get-go," said the senior, who was 16 of 28 for 208 yards and two touchdowns in last Saturday's win in Idaho. "I knew this was going to be a challenge, and it got to me a little bit."
After its defense forced a three and out about 8 minutes before halftime, Aspen reeled off a nine-play, 69-yard drive capped by a one-yard touchdown run from fullback Daniel Ryerson. The Skiers did not go to the air during the drive.
Christensen did not attempt one pass in the second half.
"A couple plays were working against them, so we kept using them," Sirko said. "I think the [offensive] line eventually wore them down. ... We felt like we had to slow the game down and get the ball out of their hands a little bit."
The strategy worked. Aspen opened the second half with a 14-play,
70-yard drive. Ufkes ran the ball 10 times during the possession, which lasted more than 6 minutes. He ultimately found the end zone, shedding tacklers on a 9-yard run up the middle that, after the extra point, squared the game at 15 with 5:33 remaining in the third.
The Skiers went to Ufkes early and often on this night. While he did not find much daylight, the senior kept moving piles and following blockers - even after injuring his hip during a punt return.
"I never know if I'm going to get 20 [carries] or 47," Ufkes said. "I come prepared for anything."
After Ufkes' score, Hotchkiss wasted little time generating a response. The Bulldogs marched right down the field, then Spor connected with Rodriguez in the flat; the back jogged untouched 9 yards into the end zone, giving Hotchkiss a 22-15 lead.
This dramatic, seesaw battle swung the Skiers' way on the next possession, as Ufkes finished off an eight-play, 65-yard drive with a 3-yard scamper.
Aspen piled up a total of 349 yards on the ground; Ryerson pitched in with 89 yards on 16 carries, and Christensen rushed three times for 29 yards - twice moving the chains with runs of 11 or more yards during the Skiers' two touchdown drives to start the second half.
His third run, which put Aspen ahead for good in the fourth, was most memorable, however.
"That was very rewarding," Christensen said.
Morehead made sure that lead held up. The junior cornerback soared and picked off a pass on the ensuing drive to give the Skiers the ball with 5:26 to play.
"I saw the ball, the lights made it glow. I said 'Here it is,'" Morehead said. "Right before that I had two horrible plays, so I told myself I had to get this one.
"I was worried [early], but I knew we would bounce back. I just wasn't sure how long it would take."
It took nearly four quarters.
"I was a little spooked. A lot of things were not falling into place," Sirko said. "Then we got back to playing Aspen football. ... The kids responded.
"We're as ready for league as we've ever been."
The quest for a 2A Western Slope title begins with Friday's homecoming game, when Gunnison visits Aspen High School at 7 p.m.