The sun’s rays slowly stretch through Aspen High School’s dark hallways. Girls participating in the Aspen Basketball Academy’s senior session are still sleeping, sprawled out on the track suspended above the school gym. The soft hum of central air is the lone sound cutting through the prevailing silence.That is until a group of young men makes its way to the weight room. It’s 6:30 a.m., and 10 football players – some of whom have driven from as far away as Carbondale and outside Redstone – have gathered for an early morning training session.”It’s a hell of a sacrifice,” says Mike Sirko, Aspen High’s new head football coach. “But that’s what it takes.”As they have four times a week since February, the players go through a well-rehearsed routine. One group tackles the bench press, while others alternate between bicep curls, tricep pull-downs and free-weight exercises. Those who are a little more daring test their strength and coordination with some power cleans. Leading the charge is Sirko. The husband of the school district’s superintendent, whose controversial hiring in January spurred debate in nearly every corner of the Aspen community, is cheering on his new squad. He’s instructing players on proper technique and pushing others to pound out those last few repetitions. He’s laid-back, but energetic and supportive. He never goes more than a few seconds without flashing a smile. Weight room habits are the cornerstone of any successful program, Sirko says. And every day, from lifting to throwing to line drills, he’s helping his players add one more brick to what he hopes becomes a strong foundation. “We’re building a foundation through that work ethic,” the youthful 54-year-old said. “I can feel a connection with these kids already. Me coming here was a weird situation – I’ve never been in a place where I wasn’t welcomed with open arms – but the experience has been positive.”
The circumstances surrounding the departure of former Skiers coach Travis Benson have been well-documented – and well-scrutinized. Benson, a former Aspen standout who went on to play at Division II Mesa Sate, resigned Dec. 11 after two seasons as head coach and five as an assistant. His resignation came nearly two weeks after he met with Superintendent Diana Sirko, AHS Principal Charlie Anastas and athletic director Carol Sams. Administrators suggested it was in the best interest of the program to have Benson take a subordinate role under Mike Sirko, who would mentor the entire coaching staff.
Benson told The Aspen Times he considered the suggestion an ultimatum. He walked away after going 3-4 in 2006 – the program’s most successful season since being reinstituted as a varsity sport seven years ago. Benson’s departure and Sirko’s subsequent hiring – after a monthlong, nationwide search that identified 16 candidates – was met with mixed reactions from a divided public. Some accused the superintendent of nepotism and being disloyal. Others, including members of Benson’s own staff, believed Sirko’s guidance and experience would help bolster the program.Student-athletes, too, had mixed feelings. Many, motivated by an allegiance to their former coach, posted “Benson or Bust” signs throughout the school and contemplated walking away from the team. Senior running back Tucker Eason, an outspoken opponent of the move, told The Aspen Times in December that Benson’s potential demotion would impede, not advance, the team.”I still love Travis, and I support Travis,” Eason said Wednesday from Louisiana, where he’s attending the Peyton Manning Passing Academy at Nicholls State University. “He was a good friend to us, and I wish he was still on the sideline with us. “I like the new coach. He set the record straight from the beginning and let us know he wasn’t attacking anybody. We know it wasn’t his fault [Benson left]. Travis wanted us to have a good next coach, and I feel like we’re now on a good track for success.”If the interaction between players and Sirko at the early morning workouts is any indication, the uproar has subsided – at least in these quarters. While Benson is still fresh in their minds, the team is moving forward. No matter where they stood on the issues as they unfolded in December and January, the players now appear to be on the same page.And sentiments have changed from “Benson or Bust” to “In Sirko We Trust.””Sirko’s a lot more experienced, and he knows a bit more about what he’s doing,” sophomore Grant Huber said. “He’s gotten more people enthused to come out and lift. He pumps the kids up more – it’s his coaching style I think.””We think he can be the guy to help us,” Eason added. “He’s not looking to build from the ground up, he’s ready to go to work now.”
Sirko, now at the helm of his eighth high school program, has built a 32-year career predicated on the quick transformation of struggling programs. He inherited a Hotchkiss team in 1979 in the midst of a 38-game losing streak; he helped the Bulldogs win nine games and reach the quarterfinals in his first year, and the semifinals in his second.After a stint at Falcon High School in Colorado Springs, Sirko guided 4A Rampart to five straight winnings seasons from 1988 to 1992. The Rams, who never had a winning season before Sirko’s arrival, also made three state tournament appearances during his tenure. Sirko returned to Rampart in 1996, after helping develop the Smoky Hill program, and led the Rams to a successful six-year stretch in which they distinguished themselves as one of the state’s elite programs.
Under Sirko’s watch, Rampart won six straight conference championships. The Rams’ 14-0 record in 1998 culminated in a state title. Sirko last coached at 5A Doherty in Colorado Springs, where he led the Spartans to three winning seasons in four years. “I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer after 32 years, but I think I have a lot to offer,” Sirko said. “I can’t build houses, and I’m terrible with numbers, but I can coach kids.”I like to take programs that have not been really successful as far as the win-loss board goes and try to develop them into winning programs. Doing it right takes time. You’ve got to change the mindset and change the culture. I hope the parents come aboard and the community comes aboard.”The players are already onboard. Many were wearing “Aspen Football Build Tradition” T-shirts around the weight room (a brick with the name of every Skiers opponent – including one with “State” sitting on top – adorns the back). It was typical for 30 players to crowd the weight room during before-school workouts from February to May, Huber said. And 30 kids showed up for every session of Aspen’s “Brawn at Dawn” football camp, which ran for two weeks in late June. The state allowed high school programs to conduct full-contact camps, similar to college’s spring ball, for a two-week stretch after June 1 for the first time this year.”I’ve seen a commitment shift, and I’ve had some coaches tell me they couldn’t believe we had 30 kids come out to camp,” Sirko said. “I feel good about the 10 days we had. It was a real shot in the arm for this program.”Huber has also noticed a change.”Last year, there would’ve been two or three people here,” he said of summer weightlifting. “You’ve got to be really dedicated. If you don’t do it, you’re not going to get better.”
Sirko may be in for his toughest assignment yet by moving to Aspen. He assumes a 2A program that lost 13 seniors and won just five games from 2003-2005. In three losses last year against the Western Slope’s pre-eminent programs – Roaring Fork, Olathe and Gunnison – Aspen was outscored 127-14. The young Skiers – the team has only seven seniors – open this year with Battle Mountain, to whom they lost 35-2 in last year’s opener.
“Looking back, I realize that a lot of things have to fall in place,” Sirko said. “There are some days you get out-horsed and don’t play as well. My hope is that we’re consistent, that we’re playing the best we can, and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”Skillwise, we’re as good as anybody, but we need a more physical approach to the game. We have some kids who are daring on those ski jumps and are not afraid to let it loose. If we can take the skis off and let it loose on the football field, we’ll be all right.”Those who believe the school administration fumbled the Benson matter will follow Sirko’s every move. Sirko knows he’ll be scrutinized and criticized, but outside pressure will pale in comparison to that which he puts on himself.He’s here for the kids, and he’s here to win. “I know that some people will go by wins and losses and try to make comparisons,” Sirko said. “I have tunnel vision. These kids are in my thoughts all the time. By the end of the next year or two, those kids will say they want to be a part of football because this is good for the high school and the town of Aspen.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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