A tough road ahead for Aspen boys basketball?
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – The skeptics are out in full force.
Skiers coach Steve Ketchum said a 3A Western Slope representative told him the state basketball tournament selection committee tried its best to give the Aspen boys team a fourth or fifth seed. The group argued that Aspen, which improved to 22-0 after locking up a third-consecutive district championship Saturday, benefited from a soft schedule in a decidedly watered-down conference.
The group ultimately relented, however, doling out the No. 2 seed to the Skiers in the 32-team field. It did the squad few favors in doing so, however, sending a group of talented teams to Aspen for regional play, which begins Friday.
“In my view, we have the toughest regional in the entire state,” Ketchum said Tuesday. “It is very possible that whoever comes out of this regional, you could see them playing in the state championship game. It’s going to be a slugfest.”
Those taking the court at Aspen High are: the Academy, a squad one Front Range sportswriter described as the best-kept secret in Colorado; a perennial power in Yuma that has given Aspen fits in recent years; and a traditional 3A Metro powerhouse, Denver Christian, led by a coach (Dick Katte) with more than 800 wins and seven state titles on his resume.
Heck, Katte has one of the bracket’s four regions named after him.
“We didn’t get a great draw, but the silver lining is that you have to beat the best to be the best,” Ketchum said. “We would’ve liked for [these tough battles] to come later, but these are things we have no control over.”
First up for Aspen is tonight’s tussle with The Academy at 7. While the Wildcats, out of the Frontier League, finished 9-13 and have lost four of their last five, they have shown flashes of strong play. On Jan. 19, they gave Jefferson Academy – the No. 3 seed and the only other unbeaten in the field – a major scare before losing by five.
Justin Hoffman, James Rutt and Josh Cirbo all average double figures for The Academy.
“They’re very unpredictable but are very talented. They have great shooters and excellent ball handlers,” Ketchum said. “When you face a team like that, anything can happen.
“We can’t look beyond [today], because without that win there is no Saturday.”
Still, it’s difficult not to ponder potential showdowns with familiar foes No. 18 Denver Christian (14-9) or No. 15 Yuma (16-6). Ketchum has twice played Katte’s bunch in sub-regional play, coming up short both times.
Aspen and Yuma have crossed paths at the Great Eight each of the last two seasons. In 2008, the Skiers withstood a late Indians surge to win, 50-46, and advance to the state semifinals. Last season, in the consolation-bracket final, Aspen missed 17 of 18 from 3-point range and could do little to stop Yuma guard Jaden Winger, who scored 23 points in his team’s 48-39 win.
Should the Skiers meet the Indians on Saturday, Winger will not be Ketchum’s only concern.
“They might be the best defensive team in the state,” he said. “When you cross the half-court line, they’re in your face and relentless. They don’t let you breathe. … Buena Vista was a really good challenge [in last year’s regional final]. I think Yuma is tougher than that.
“I certainly think we’re better prepared than we have been, maybe ever been.”
With good reason. Aspen has nine seniors on its roster, and a few players who will be making their fourth state-tournament appearance.
“We’ve prepared the kids for four years, and they’ve really got it now. It’s time for them to go out and perform,” Ketchum said. “It’s not my team, it’s their team and it’s time they take some ownership. … When they win, they deserve all the credit.”
To pass this weekend’s test, improve to 6-0 in home regionals under Ketchum’s watch and secure a third-consecutive berth in the Great Eight, the Skiers will rely on their traditionally stingy defense and a balanced offense. The emergence of guard Andrew Papenfus, who scored 20 or more points in two of three district games, will help.
While he thinks his team is a week from peaking, Ketchum said he nevertheless likes Aspen’s chances.
“They’re really coming on … and everyone seems to have a positive frame of mind,” he added. “I’m nervous most of the games, it doesn’t matter who we play. But I’ll tell you what, I’m certainly less nervous this year than I have been in years past. … I have that much confidence in this group.”
The pressure is on. The home fans and the state will be watching tonight.
“There’s no satisfaction with what we’ve accomplished to this point. There’s something bigger that everyone wants,” Ketchum said. “The carrot is still out there. The golden ball is waiting for us.”
• Fresh off a dramatic, double-overtime victory over Cedaredge – one coach Jeremy Haack called the most exciting in his 10 years of coaching – that helped them sneak into the state-tournament field, the Aspen girls will look to continue their late-season heroics. It will not be easy, as the No. 29 Skiers visit Pagosa Springs, which is 19-2 and seeded fourth. The winner will take on either No. 13 Buena Vista (15-7) or No. 20 Rye (14-8).
Aspen (8-14) has won five of its last eight games.
• The Basalt boys, who earned a state-tournament berth with an upset victory in Gunnison during last week’s district tournament, will visit sixth-seeded Buena Vista (18-5). Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m.
The Demons, who finished second to Colorado Springs Christian in the Tri-Peaks Conference, have won four straight.
The Longhorns (10-12), who finished sixth in the 3A Western Slope during the regular season, defeated Grand Valley to wind up third at the district tournament in Palisade.
• And Glenwood radio station KMTS (99.1 FM) will be broadcasting the Aspen games this weekend.
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Colorado’s Western Slope is considered a climate hot spot where temperatures are increasing faster than the global average. This warming has contributed to more than 20 years of dryness, which scientists are calling a megadrought.