ASPEN - Mike Sirko always believed this was possible. He might have been the only one.
The Aspen football program was floundering when the veteran coach took the reins in 2007. Turning Aspen into a Western Slope contender, let alone a state power, seemed inconceivable.
But Sirko had a vision. And a plan.
"I believe that any time we go into a program we can make it successful and bring it to the top," he said Tuesday afternoon. "When you've been there before, you have the formula and it comes down to if the kids will buy in and do the things they need to do. ... It's not rocket science. If it was, I wouldn't be doing it because I'm not smart enough.
"They've believed. They've trusted in us, and we trust them."
The resulting partnership has been an unequivocal success, as evidenced by three consecutive trips to the state playoffs from 2007-2009.
And now, for the first time in program history, the Skiers find themselves in uncharted territory: Aspen is the new No. 1 in The Denver Post's latest 2A football poll, released Monday.
"It's a blessing in that people respect our program and what we've accomplished," Sirko said, "but the curse is that all you can go is down from here. ... I'd rather be No. 9 or 10 and looking up, but the bottom line is we still have to go out and play every game."
Aspen assumed the top spot by virtue of Faith Christian's loss to Kent Denver on Friday. The Eagles were No. 1 for three of the season's first four weeks; Brush was No. 1 after beating Faith Christian, but then fell in the rankings after a loss to 1A Wray.
Aspen, Platte Canyon and Brush currently occupy the poll's top three spots; the Eagles fell all the way to seventh.
"It's kind of been like a revolving door [at No. 1] so far. I hope we're not a part of that," Sirko said. "We can't worry about that. ... This really means nothing in the overall scheme of things. It's all about where you are at the end of the year, not at the beginning or the middle."
The Skiers have been a Top 5 fixture this season. They remain unbeaten despite taking on a demanding non-conference schedule that included a trip to Idaho to play the reigning 3A state champion Shelley Russets and a matchup with 1A Hotchkiss, one of two teams to beat Aspen during the 2009 regular season. In both of those games, resilient Aspen battled back from large deficits to pull out dramatic victories.
The Skiers opened league play Friday with a convincing 42-0 rout of Gunnison.
News of their ascension in the polls was announced three days later.
"I am just so proud of the boys and coaches," school athletic director Carol Sams wrote in an e-mail to The Aspen Times. "They have worked hard to earn this No. 1 ranking. The football program has definitely helped to boost the entire school spirit at AHS and also throughout the entire community."
Sirko added that he addressed the poll with the kids right away.
"At Rampart, we were No. 1 or 2 three years in a row, but only once did we finish on top of the heap [at season's end]. Everything still has to fall into place," he said. "We're halfway through the season. Ten games is really the only guarantee we have. I told the kids they better enjoy every one. They owe it to themselves to come out and play hard. It'll be over before they know it, and some of them will never put on a uniform again. ... Hopefully, they'll keep taking things one game at a time."
Aspen's first game as No. 1 comes Friday, when the team travels to Parachute to take on 2-2 Grand Valley.
Four of the Skiers' final six regular-season contests will come on the road.
"We've got a big bull's eye on our backs, and we have to be ready every week. It's going to be a real challenge for the kids," Sirko said. "I feel like the kids are at a point now where they know what they've got to do.
"We've come a long way, baby, but we're only as good as that next game."