ARVADA — One by one, the Aspen Skiers lined up in the hallway outside the visitors locker room Saturday afternoon at Faith Christian High School.
One by one, the sobbing Skiers took their turns to offer their personal appreciation to their coach, Mike Sirko.
One by one, the Skiers followed football’s trail of tears to share an embrace with the coach who led Aspen into the Class 2A state playoffs for the seventh consecutive year — a school record.
“I’m proud of those guys — I’ll tell you that,” Sirko said as he wiped away tears he had shared with his Aspen High School football team. “We battled and battled. Gosh, I’m proud of these kids.”
The No. 13-seed Skiers had just left the stadium in suburban Denver where they watched a big and powerful team use its superior size and numbers to end their run in the first round of the playoffs, 49-14.
“They were bigger in person than they looked on film,” Sirko said of the Eagles, who had a roster with 16 players 200 pounds or bigger. “Sometimes, big isn’t always good, but they were good, too.”
And they showed it on their first drive of the game.
After stopping Aspen on downs, Faith Christian promptly marched 67 yards in seven plays.
The touchdown came when junior Daniel Langewisch broke to the outside, followed a wall of blockers and rumbled 45 yards for a touchdown midway through the first quarter — the first of four TDs for the 5-9, 190-pound junior.
“They play the kind of football we’d like to play, where you line up and break their will,” Sirko said after Langewisch also scored on runs of 5 and 10 yards.
The power back with dynamic spin moves, reminiscent of former Aspen tailback Nicky Ufkes, added a 73-yard touchdown run in the second half as he finished, unofficially, with 207 yards rushing in the playoff win over the Skiers.
Running their modified spread offense that includes elements of the single-wing of days gone by, the Eagles led 28-0 at halftime.
Fellow quarterback/tailback Adam Buchmann added a 47-yard touchdown run for the Eagles, who improved to 8-2.
“I was proud of the way our kids came back,” Sirko said after the Skiers scored twice in the second half against Faith Christian. “Last year, we got to the playoffs, and we were not ready to go, and it was a horrible, horrible experience. This year, I think the kids felt like they deserved to be here, and they played hard.”
Trailing 35-0, the Skiers put together a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive in the third quarter.
Behind the running of Ryan Fitzgerald and the passing of quarterback Tyler Tick, the Skiers broke the shutout when Tick rolled to his left and lofted a pass into the end zone.
A leaping Nicky Cottrell took the ball away from two Faith defenders for Aspen’s first touchdown.
“That was a great catch,” Tick said of Cottrell’s highlight-reel reception. “There have been a few that we’ve missed this year. Finally, we connected, and it felt great.”
Tick, the son of Cathy and Jon Tick, threw a second touchdown pass for the Skiers when he connected with Harry Ferguson on a 34-yard score in the fourth quarter.
“We just came out and showed what we are all about. We played for pride,” Tick said. “We wanted to leave a legacy for the seniors. We didn’t give up at all.”
Tick, who tweaked his ankle in the first half, played through the second half, albeit with a slight limp.
“It’s all right. I just turned my ankle a little bit,” Tick said after the Skiers finished the season 7-4.
“The beauty is that we didn’t quit. The kids kept playing,” the Aspen head coach said. “I felt like we tried to do our best.”
Fitzgerald, the leading rusher in the Western League, added to his season total with 75 hard-earned yards against the Eagles, putting him close to 1,700 for the year.
“I love these guys,” said Fitzgerald, the son of Kristin and Steve Fitzgerald. “We got a lot of bumps and bruises, but we just had to fight through that.”
Aspen senior captain Matt Sovich, who battled back from two serious knee injuries to conclude his career with the Skiers, said the team knew it had to rally in the second half.
“I’m proud of the boys. This team battled,” said Sovich, who left a few bruises on the Eagles on Saturday afternoon. He had two sacks and a handful of tackles.
Teammate JJ Ready also recovered a fumble for Aspen.
“Those guys are good. They hit hard,” said Sovich, the son of Cheryl and OB Sovich. “But we had a solid second half.”
He said the entire season will be a positive memory for him.
“I had a great time. I love coming out here with these boys and battling through,” Sovich said. “It’s been a great season.”
Faith Christian will advance to the second round of the state playoffs and a game against Gunnison next weekend. Gunnison eliminated Fort Lupton on Friday.
In other games involving the Western League, Olathe lost at Bennett, 14-13.