Aspen football: men of brawn
ASPEN ” It was just past 6:30 on a cool, cloudless summer morning when Mike Sirko got cranked up.
With his offensive lineman down in their three-point stances, squared in front of a blocking sled, Aspen High’s resident gridiron guru started yelling as if he wanted the whole upper valley to hear him.
“We don’t have anybody who is 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, so we’ve got to help each other out!” Sirko shouted as he paced in front of his players. “We can be the best O-line in the league, but we’ve got to help each other out!
“Now Drive! Drive! Drive! Drive!”
After pushing the sled about 7 yards, a whistle blew, legs stopped churning, and then the next group of lineman jumped into their stances. Sirko ” cheeks flushed, chest out ” didn’t miss a beat.
“You gotta believe that we’re only gonna be as good as that guy next to you,” he yelled. “You gotta believe in that guy to the right of you! That guy to the left of you! That guy behind you!
If not for the snowcapped peaks in the distance, this sure felt like two-a-days in August. During the next two hours, Sirko and his assistant coaches goaded 32 players, in full pads, through a practice on the hot turf that made it seem as if the Skiers’ season opener was just days away, not nine weeks out.
Not that any of this comes as a surprise. As observers and players discovered last year after his controversial arrival in town, Mike Sirko is unapologetic about being one hell of a high school football coach.
While his critics questioned the circumstances that led to his hiring, Sirko never gave them an inch of rope when it came to questioning his credentials. He took a stagnant program that had won just six games during the previous three seasons and went 7-3 in his first season ” good enough for a runner-up league finish and Aspen’s first playoff berth since 1974.
As to how Sirko engineered such a remarkable turnaround, just spend a morning at one of the “Brawn at Dawn” practices he holds for his team during two weeks in June. On the turf, away from peering eyes, while others sleep, is where the coach seemingly works magic in broad daylight.
Two years ago, the Colorado High School Activities Association eased its rules on out-of-season football practices, allowing high school players to participate in 10 full-contact sessions at summer football camps.
As for what connotes a camp, the term is interpreted loosely. High school coaches can hold their own camps for their own players ” practices that are akin to spring practices in college football.
And, in Sirko’s world, if the CHSAA says it’s OK to hold 10 summer practices, well, then the Skiers are going to make those practices count.
It was last June at the first “Brawn at Dawn” camp where Sirko said the Skiers started to believe in one another and, in turn, started to believe they could be winners.
“I think what’s great about it is that, a lot of these kids, at one time were told they couldn’t be that good at football, that it’s just not our cup of tea in Aspen,” Sirko said. “But I think people know now that that’s just not so.”
The coach said this as two of his top returnees, seniors Beau Seguin and Travis VanDomelen, put in extra work catching passes after a grueling two-hour Friday morning practice.
“At one time, there was a lot of tradition here in football back in the day,” Sirko added. “It just kind of fell off for awhile. Now, we’re developing that program again and kids are figuring out why. It’s like this stuff. Doing a little extra work after practice. Catching balls and kicking a few balls. Coming out here at 6:30 in the morning. They know that if they do that, the feel like they paid their dues and they deserve it as much as anyone else.”
Sirko, entering his 33rd season as a head football coach in Colorado, is big on hard work and dedication and short on patience when it comes to reasons ” excuses, as Sirko calls them ” for why Aspen can’t be a football power.
Before and after every early-morning practice, his team huddles up and shouts “Brick by Brick” in unison, a mantra that sums up the philosophy of its coach.
The intent: nothing great was ever built in a day. From Day 1, Sirko worked to instill a blue collar mentality in a white collar town by preaching the value of a day’s hard work to his players.
Every weightlifting session. Every sprint. Every tough practice in June, in the quiet hours of the morning, when most other high school players are in bed. All of them will pay dividends, Sirko said.
That much was made clear by last fall’s drastic turnaround, although Sirko and the Skiers aren’t content to be one-hit wonders. The true test is to prove that their Cinderella season wasn’t a fluke, that they can keep adding bricks to the foundation they built.
“There is no team that is going to say, ‘Oh geez, here comes Aspen. They’re gonna kick our butt!'” Sirko barked toward the end of one morning practice. “We’ve got to earn it! Every day you’re here, we’ve got to get better!”
Seguin, a free safety and tailback, said the Skiers are already doing that, as evidenced by the turnout in the weight room at offseason workout sessions. An equipment upgrade in the high school’s weight room only helped.
“We’ve been practicing since two weeks after the season ended,” he said. “We were in the weight room all year. That new weight room has been extremely helpful. It’s bumped up everybody. Our strength this year is triple what our strength was last year. It’s incredible.”
One of Sirko’s favorite sayings, among the many he tosses around in a practice, is “Be a Spartan.”
The maxim reverts back to Sirko’s philosophy of teamwork. Last season, the Skiers never had the best individual player on the field any given Friday night, but they continued to earn upset wins because they stuck together.
More than anything, “Brawn at Dawn” is a place for Aspen’s players to build chemistry and gain confidence. It’s a place where excuses for losing go to die.
“You watch that movie ‘The 300’ about the Battle of Thermopylae, and you learn it’s not about the individual, it’s the team,” Sirko said. “It was the 300 that held that pass, that did it together in front of unbelievable odds.”
After a pause, Sirko continued.
“Our players, they’ve got to know they’re in this together ” good, bad, or indifferent,” he said. “They gotta know when things are going good, they’re in it together and when things are going bad, too. And they have to understand that that’s a little bit of life, too. You go through the good times and you go through the bad times, but it’s easier if you’re in it together. They know that they’re the ones who are making the difference. The new guys coming in each year have to buy into that.”
Even after more than 30 years of doing this, it’s apparent Sirko’s hunger for winning, his passion for shaping young men into Friday night “gladiators” hasn’t waned. Especially against unfavorable odds.
His raw enthusiasm has certainly rubbed off on the Skiers in all the right ways, it seems.
“Because he’s so excited, it pushes us to be better,” said VanDomelen, who is penciled in as a two-way starter at linebacker and fullback. “I can’t even sleep at night, I’m so excited. I can just imagine coach Sirko screaming, ‘Another great morning, boys.'”
“He’s the most excited person on this field, by far, and it makes it so much more fun for us,” Seguin added. “It’s so much fun being out here.”
If anything, for a brief taste of what’s in store in the fall when the Skiers will take the field ” under the lights, with what will be higher expectations than ever before.
Sirko and his players recognize that Aspen won’t sneak up on any teams this year, as it did last year. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
When asked about all of the upset wins from a year ago, and the prospect of a line of league foes looking for revenge, VanDomelen didn’t flinch, didn’t offer up any excuses.
“We know what we have to do,” he said. “We just lower those shoulders and hit harder.”
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