Aspen boys basketball makes a run for the ages |

Aspen boys basketball makes a run for the ages

Jon Maletz
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – When he could summon the energy to open his eyes and sit up in his hospital bed, Lowell Dean Ketchum watched Aspen High School basketball games on live Internet feeds. For March 13’s 3A state championship game, the 76-year-old retired Air Force colonel listened to the play-by-play on the radio.

After guiding the Aspen boys to a second-place finish at Moby Arena in Fort Collins, Lowell’s son, Steve Ketchum, drove to the hospital in Longmont to be by his ailing father’s side.

The coach, who had purposely been kept in the dark by family members during his team’s playoff run, finally came to grips with the gravity of the situation. The melanoma had spread from his father’s skin to his bones and marrow. Doctors said there was nothing else they could do, and the prognosis grew darker with each day.

Steve Ketchum spent four straight days in that hospital, leaving periodically to sit in his car and cry, but he will always cherish that time – and one thing in particular that his father said.

“He told me he was proud of me,” Ketchum said, pausing to choke back tears earlier this week. “He told me he was proud of my team.

“I think every kid wants to feel like they made their parents proud in some way.”

Or their friends, their school or even their community.

Ketchum and his team were a source of great joy this winter. They provided a welcome distraction in times of personal or economic trouble. They became a galvanizing force for Aspen, a topic of conversation from newsrooms to restaurants to city council chambers. The reason for many to venture out on bitter weeknights, the reason to fill the Aspen High bleachers from the hardwood to the cinder-block walls.

The reason Aspen gained notoriety for something other than glitz and skiing.

The Skiers took the state by storm, and took fans on quite a ride – all the way to school’s first-ever state championship game, on March 13. Along the way, Ketchum reached win No. 200 as Aspen’s coach, and his team won a school-record 26 games.

“It really is pretty spectacular,” said Dave Conarroe, an Aspen High teacher and former boys basketball coach. “Any way you frame it, the story is amazing and unprecedented at AHS. All we can hope for is to embrace and enjoy the run/fun while we can, because it is hard to make these things last for very long.”

“I know how life-changing this was,” added senior guard Andrew Papenfus, the 3A Western Slope’s player of the year. “The success we had and the great memories I have on and off the court … I’ll remember this when I’m 80 years old.”

Ketchum admits that expectations were modest when, following a stint as a coach in the German pro basketball ranks, he decided to take the Aspen job 12 years ago.

The Skiers, flush with a talented nucleus of players, appeared to be on the cusp of competing at the state level in the late ’90s – despite not making a Great Eight appearance in six decades, Ketchum said.

The brash new coach changed things in a hurry – much to the chagrin of his new team. At least initially.

“We had this fairly talented group of seniors that did not play well together and who were extremely cocky. … It was like breaking a wild stallion,” Ketchum said. “I think the kids hated me at first. They thought I was crazy, over-the-top insane, too mean and too negative.

“Then we started winning.”

Aspen went 19-7 and made it to Fort Collins in Ketchum’s first season. The Skiers came within four points of knocking off top-seeded and unbeaten Buena Vista in the quarterfinals.

One year later, Aspen won 21 games and returned to state.

The culture was changing.

“I don’t know, things just clicked that first year and took off,” Ketchum said. “Somehow, success perpetuates more success. The hardest part is being successful from the start – you’re fighting inertia. We came in and kicked butt right away. That changed everything.

“I don’t know if there’s a magic formula. I think we’re very fortunate and very blessed to have a lot of good kids that are very coachable.”

And blessed to have an unusual run of big players filter through the program, Conarroe added. Players like Michael Taylor and Cory Parker, who helped propel the Skiers to a 23-4 record and a state-semifinal berth in 2008.

For his efforts, Parker, now a sophomore at Drake University, was named 3A’s Mr. Basketball.

“You get lucky with that, plus have a coach who motivates them to learn to be better. It takes time,” Conarroe added. “Considering the distractions we have in terms of skiing and stuff, to have a situation where kids … are so dedicated to basketball is remarkable. It’s a testament to the kids that they decided ‘Yeah, we can do this,’ as well as the coaches.”

Papenfus opted to quit hockey in middle school and follow his friends to the basketball court. Nick Codd did the same – for different reasons.

“I was a ski racer and had a bad accident. … I had a concussion and broke my nose. … Plus, I grew a foot in a year from sixth to seventh grade,” he joked. “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time to start playing basketball.’ It’s been my true love from that point on.

“We were pretty good in middle school, and were coming up through a program that was good and had great players to look up to. All the tools were there. … We all wanted to be successful, and we all worked at it.”

Ketchum still has the e-mail from former Superintendent Tom Farrell. The framed sheet of paper occupies prime real estate above the desk in his office.

“It says, ‘Steve, I can never thank you enough for what you’ve done for Aspen basketball and for my kids,'” Ketchum said. “‘You’ve put Aspen basketball on the map.'”

The Skiers have stayed there.

Even after players like Parker and Taylor moved on, Aspen reaffirmed its status as the preeminent program in the 3A Western Slope. It won 24 of 27 games in 2009, secured second consecutive regular-season conference, district and sub-region crowns and made a return trip to Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

This winter, the Skiers, who had nine seniors, took another step.

“They were a very experienced group who had been to state … that gives you a lot of confidence,” Ketchum said. “They understood what was at stake, how hard to play and how to handle the distractions.”

“This was probably the best team they’ve ever had,” added Mayor Mick Ireland, who covered sports for The Aspen Times in the 1980s and who has supported area teams for three decades. “They could compete with anybody.”

The Skiers rolled through the regular season, finishing 19-0 while outscoring opponents by an average of more than 21 points per contest. Only twice during that stretch did they win by fewer than nine points.

The squad’s dominance continued in district play, culminating with a 21-point, title-game win over Hotchkiss.

Even so, the skeptics remained. Many argued that the Skiers benefited from being in a watered-down conference, and lobbied to give the squad a fourth or fifth seed in the 32-team state-tournament field.

Aspen wound up with the second seed and opened postseason play at home. Valley residents showed up in force.

“Doctors, bankers … we were all there. For $5, you can’t beat the entertainment value,” Ireland said. “In a town with a lot of passions and emotions that cause divides of various sorts, they were a great unifier. … They were such a good role model for the town.”

“The town really rallied behind them. How can you not get excited about these kids? They’re all good kids, they’re fun, positive, popular. They’re all going places in life and we all got to enjoy this with them,” Ketchum added. “Everyone was feeling like they were a part of it. That’s inspirational for anybody, and like being a kid all over again.”

The Skiers shined at home, cruising to a sub-region title with lopsided wins over The Academy and Yuma to secure another trip to the Great Eight.

Ketchum has made six trips to Fort Collins in his 12 years in Aspen.

“There’s a Latin term ‘Res ipsa loquitur,’ which basically means the thing speaks for itself,” Conarroe said. “You can’t argue with that.”

After opening the Great Eight with victories over Manitou Springs and Buena Vista by a combined 15 points, Codd and his longtime friends finally got the chance to live out a dream first conjured as middle schoolers.

“It didn’t really hit me until I was standing on the court during warm-ups at CSU. ‘Holy crap, we’re playing in the state championship game,'” Codd said. “When [guard Matthew Holmes] dished me that first pass … and I made a layup right off the glass and everyone cheered right behind the bench, I’ll remember that forever.”

“We had almost as many [fans] as [Faith Christian] did,” Ireland added. “I know the kids appreciated that.”

Those kids nearly pulled off what many outside the locker room – and those not draped in red and black – thought impossible. They hung with top-seeded Faith Christian, which has won 104 of 107 games during the last four seasons, well into the second half.

The shots fell short down the stretch, however. So, too, did Aspen’s state-title hopes. Faith pulled out a 57-47 win, handing the Skiers their first loss in 27 games and clinching a third consecutive state crown.

Aspen players could do little to hide their disappointment. A photo of the team accepting the runner-up plaque is littered with tear-stained faces, hunched shoulders and puffy eyes.

Only one person is smiling in that snapshot. The one man who had every reason to cry.

“You look at all the kids sitting on the floor crying with sad faces, then you look at me, with [son] Dre’ in my arms, smiling,” Ketchum said. “I know this was a great thing, a great experience. Who cares that we lost by 10 points? … The opportunity to play in the biggest game you can ever play in as a high school player is a dream come true.”

Ketchum experienced quite another loss nine days later, on March 22. Not long after being summoned by family members to his parents’ home in the mountains near Lyons, he kissed his father – his mentor and friend – one last time.

Son told father it was OK to go.

Credit Steve Ketchum’s perpetually upbeat persona, or his unwavering faith. Either way, the coach has exhibited great strength, resilience and perspective during a time filled with both triumph and anguish.

“It’s been an emotional few weeks. This is a reminder that life never stops, that we just have to be able to change and adapt,” he said. “Maybe the best lesson I’ve learned is to live life to the fullest and have no fear. Play fearlessly, coach fearlessly, get everything you can out of every single day. … I think we did that this year.

“My dad never once took away from the joy and the pride I had working with these kids, beating all those great teams and overcoming all the obstacles. It’s the experience of a lifetime, for me and the kids. That means everything to me.”

His players are starting to share that sentiment, thanks in large part to a community that has embraced them.

“They saw our potential and were excited to experience the success,” Papenfus said. “We’re very thankful to have made it that far.”

“I’ve been walking around and people have been coming up and congratulating me, acknowledging that we did something pretty good. … People that recognize you from the newspaper or see your letterman jacket,” Codd added.

“It would’ve been cool to have a picture of us smiling at the end, but we now know we did something special. I’m proud of that.”

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