ASPEN - Jeremy Haack is convinced his Skiers are up to the challenge.
The Aspen girls hoops team returns three starters from a squad that won 10 games and finished just one game under .500 in the deep 3A Western Slope. Matching or bettering their sixth-place conference finish largely will depend on the Skiers' ability to replace the production of Bailey Everhart, a dynamic transition player who emerged as the team's most reliable scorer.
Aspen tips off the 2012-13 season at 4 p.m. Friday against 1A Norwood at Vail Christian.
"She obviously was a really good player, but somebody has to step up every year," Haack said Thursday. "It will absolutely have to be a collective effort.
"This is a great group of kids that is working really hard. They're going to play hard for the name on the front of the jersey and for each other."
In the absence of Everhart and Savannah Johnson, the catalysts of an offense that averaged 42 points per contest, Haack's bunch will lean heavily on the contributions of returning senior starters Anna Stevens, Tateh Hopper and Maggie Ryan.
Additionally, Haack expects juniors Emily Daly and Mary Landis to shine with added playing time. A talented but unproven stable of former junior varsity players will provide depth.
As always, ball-hawking, full-court defensive pressure will be the Skiers' true modus operandi.
"We're looking for defense to create offense every year," Haack said. "This group's athleticism will really put us in a great position."
Haack liked what he saw during summer tournaments in Aspen and at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"It was a great experience for the younger girls. We played some really tough competition," Haack said. "They really shot the ball well from the outside.
"I really felt that during that second weekend at CU, we really grew together. This team is a lot of fun to coach, and we're looking forward to the opportunity."
A big opportunity looms today against a Norwood squad that came within five points of winning last year's 1A state championship. The Mavericks won 23 of 25 games last winter and scored more than 55 points per game.
"There's nothing wrong with playing a tough team on opening weekend," said Haack, whose squad opened last season with three consecutive wins. "It's not going to be perfect, but I promise they'll play hard. We're in one of the toughest leagues, and these girls are not ones to back down. They'll be ready to play.
"All we talk about is, 'Let's get better every day.' We'll continue to improve, but it's a process. I don't like to put numbers on it, but this team is special. They're going to surprise some people."
In other action Friday, Basalt's boys and girls open their 2012-13 seasons at the Brenda Patch Tournament at Roaring Fork High School. The girls open against Eagle Valley at 3:30 p.m. The boys are slated to square off with the Devils at 5 p.m.