Aspen football looks to regroup this fall after injuries, youth derailed the spring
Skiers host Colorado Springs Christian at 5:30 p.m. on Friday
By the time the Aspen High School football team laced up for its playoff opener this past spring, the roster had thinned out a lot. Injuries were mounting and many young players were forced into action well ahead of schedule, part of the reason the Skiers were tossed aside by The Classical Academy in the first round, 57-0.
“Last spring was brutal. We were out nine starters, I think, for Classical Academy,” AHS coach Travis Benson said on Wednesday. “To be quite honest, this spring was more of a spring ball than you’d ever have. This summer was good. We saw a commitment from these kids in the weight room, which I think was because we played in the spring and it turned over so quickly. I don’t know if there is a magic pill either way.”
This was, without question, the shortest offseason in AHS football history. The Skiers were among the minority in the state — roughly 20% — to have opted to play in the spring as opposed to last fall because of the coronavirus pandemic. Aspen finished the shortened regular season 3-3 overall before getting rolled by TCA in Colorado Springs.
Back at it only a handful of months later, the Skiers bring back nearly all of their spring roster, outside of the four seniors who graduated last year. Aspen will still enter this fall — where things are seemingly back to normal from a league and schedule standpoint — hiding in the shadows behind Class 2A Western Slope League favorites such as Rifle, Delta and Basalt.
But there’s enough excitement to believe the Skiers could make some noise over the coming months.
“There has been a lot of buy in and a lot of commitment from these guys, of the core nucleus of the group,” said Benson, an AHS graduate who is entering the fourth season of his second stint leading the program. “And I’ve told the kids this all year, you are going to have your bricks and they are definitely a solid foundation, but you need that little bit of mortar to bring it all together. And we are getting closer, for sure. Excited to see the work they’ve put in for the last three weeks and what it translates to on Friday night.”
Aspen will host Colorado Springs Christian in its season opener on Friday, with an early 5:30 p.m. kickoff on the AHS turf. The Lions, who play out of the Class 1A Tri-Peaks league, officially went 4-1 in their limited fall season a year ago. They went 8-3 in 2019, the last time the state had a full season prior to COVID-19.
Benson didn’t say who would take the first snap at quarterback for the Skiers on Friday, although he said to expect a mix of junior Nate Thomas — who took most of the snaps last spring — and senior Porter Lee. Lee transferred in from out of state last season and wasn’t eligible to play football this past spring after having played in the fall, although he was a standout for the AHS basketball team last winter.
“We are still trying to figure out what we are and when we are that,” Benson said of the QB situation. “They will both play. It’s just a question of who plays a little bit more or what situations they play in.”
Aspen graduated a couple of key offensive weapons in Storm Silich and Noah Akin from the spring, but has far from an empty cupboard this fall. What could be different offensively this season is how often the Skiers hand the ball to a tailback in their pass-happy spread offense.
“I have a handful of guys to find out if we can get the running game going this year. There has been a lot of focus on that,” Benson said. “They spread out across the field very well.”
The lines will be anchored by seniors Zach Small and Ahmed Hmani. Like most teams on the Western Slope, the majority of the players will be asked to play two ways.
“The big thing is while we are fantastic up front, we aren’t very deep. It’s two-way football. It comes down to who stays healthy for the duration,” Benson said. “It’s the nature of the beast. I think if you go up and down this valley and all the way to Rifle, you are going to see the best athletes on the field on both sides of the ball.”
After this week, Aspen will jump right into a bye next week because of experiential education. Game 2 will be Sept. 10 when the Skiers travel to Summit. Trips to Battle Mountain (Sept. 17) and Steamboat Springs (Sept. 24) close out the non-league contests.
AHS will open WSL play on Oct. 1 at home against Rifle, which won the state championship this past spring over that same TCA team that ended Aspen’s season. The remainder of the regular season includes Delta (Oct. 8 at home), Moffat County (Oct. 15 in Craig), Coal Ridge (Oct. 22 at home) and the Oct. 29 finale at Basalt.
“The young men are eager to play again, that’s for sure,” Benson said.
The arts scene in Basalt continues to rival its up and down valley counterparts with several new exhibitions on the horizon and artists opening studio spaces and participating in group shows alongside their peers.
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