BASALT - Few words of motivation were needed when Mike Sirko huddled with his Aspen football team in the driving snow after Thursday's practice.
It's Basalt week, after all. And in Friday's regular season finale in Basalt, valley bragging rights are not the only thing at stake.
The objective is simple: Win, and you're in.
"You live for games like this," said Skiers senior Dan Schwartz, flashing a look of steely determination behind his helmet visor. "There's nothing like playing your rival for the opportunity to go to playoffs."
The Skiers (6-2 overall, 4-2 2A Western) have dominated this matchup of late, winning the past five meetings by a combined score of 163-29. Notch a sixth, and Aspen would book its sixth consecutive trip to the postseason.
If they can top the Skiers for the first time since 2006, the Longhorns (5-3, 4-2) would head to the playoffs as the league's third qualifier.
Basalt head coach Carl Frerichs acknowledges that will be a tall task.
"I definitely think coach Sirko and Aspen deserve a ton of credit. We've had our hands full with them the last couple of years," Frerichs said. "Until we prove we can beat them, we're the underdogs. That being said, we were beating them halfway through the third quarter last year. We're getting closer and closer. Now, we have to take that next step in order to take them down."
The Longhorns took advantage of a long rushing score and two field goals from standout place-kicker Bertilio Garcia to take a 13-7 lead last year in Aspen. Things unraveled from there, as Skiers tailback Casey Hornburg scored three second-half touchdowns.
Cornerback Brendan Wagner picked off a pass in the final minutes of regulation and returned it 35 yards for a score to finish off Basalt.
Hornburg, who rushed for 190 yards on 31 carries in last year's contest, will be watching from the sidelines for the fourth consecutive game. The senior is still working his way back after having surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee.
"To be honest, he's just not ready," Sirko said of Hornburg, who leads Aspen with 570 rushing yards despite playing four games. "We had hoped this would be the week he'd be back, but he hasn't even practiced. Other guys are going to have to step up. We have to play with one big heart and play a team game."
In Hornburg's absence, the Skiers have leaned heavily on Schwartz. The senior responded with three consecutive 100-yard rushing efforts in which he scored a total of nine touchdowns - eight rushing and one receiving. He has accounted for 16 touchdowns.
Schwartz rushed for 188 yards in last week's 36-19 home loss to Grand Valley.
"Now that I'm getting a few extra carries, I'm excited to be able to help my team in any way I can," Schwartz said. "We did a good job (putting last week's loss behind us). We came out Monday ready to go, and it's been intense for three days. I think we've done what we've needed to."
Basalt appears primed for a strong performance, too. Its defense has been consistent, and its revamped zone-read offense appears to be clicking, as evidenced by four consecutive 20-plus-point efforts.
The Longhorns have won four of their last five and were among a small group of teams outside the top 10 garnering votes in the latest Denver Post poll. They also should be buoyed by the return of leading rusher Cody Banc, who sat out last week's win over Coal Ridge with an injury.
Senior Bertilio Garcia shined against the Titans, rushing for more than 100 yards and two key fourth-quarter touchdowns.
It's Garcia's right leg that worries Sirko most, however.
"He can change the game by 20, 30 yards with every kick," Sirko said of the two-time All-State selection. "As a punter, a kickoff guy and with field goals, he's definitely a key in the game.
"They have a solid group of seniors and juniors, and I think they match up pretty well with us. Like always, it's going to come down to who makes the least mistakes, controls the football and responds to the surroundings. I feel like there's pressure on both sides in this game because there's so much as stake."
Added Frerichs, "Turnovers are going to be huge, as is getting off blocks and tackling on defense. Coach Sirko's teams are extremely well coached and don't beat themselves. You have to beat them. Our guys certainly aren't cocky, but they believe that if they do what they're supposed to, we'll have the outcome we want.
"We were hoping last year that we'd get enough Wild Card points to get in. We're excited that this year we control our destiny."
Schwartz can sense the urgency.
"Coach always says that the next week's game is the biggest of your life. This is the biggest for sure," he said. "I definitely don't want tomorrow to be my last game."