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Good to be king

Nate PetersonAspen Times Weekly
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

For years, the favorite chant of Roaring Fork fans during basketball triumphs over Aspen consisted of three words that cut right to the core of any Skiers supporter: Just. Like. Football.As far as Carbondale fans were concerned, Aspen could have its state skiing titles, its regional championships in cross country, its successful varsity tennis programs. Let the supposed rich kids have their glory in the white-collar sports. When it came to the bragging rights that mattered most in a packed gym, with community pride bubbling over there was no arguing who ruled the valley.That is, until this school year.In January, Aspens senior-laden boys basketball team traveled to Carbondale and accomplished what no team in the 3A Western Slope conference had done in five years outlasting the Rams through four quarters for a 61-57 win.The victory snapped Roaring Forks 53-game league winning streak and cast a spell of disbelief over the typically rabid blue-and-gold-clad Rams home cheering section.The power shift was complete. On the heels of a similarly shocking football triumph in Carbondale in late September Aspens first win over Roaring Fork since its return to varsity status in 2002 Skiers fans suddenly found themselves in an unfamiliar and enviable position.As Aspen senior Tucker Eason put it, this was the moment he had been waiting for his whole life. There was no need to make up a new chant. The one Roaring Fork had so skillfully used for years to deflate opponents sounded deliciously sweet to Aspen fans when it came out of their own mouths.Teams have been beating us up for years, and it was, like, Hey, finally its our turn, said Eason, the battering-ram running back who led the charge for new football coach Mike Sirko during the Skiers shocking turnaround in the fall. This class, we made it happen for Aspen in sports. We finally have a chance to be on top.

For once we can say, Just like football, added fellow senior Cory Parker, the two-time Western Slope player of the year in boys basketball who was the catalyst for Aspen in three wins over Roaring Fork this winter, the last of which clinched a district crown in a run to the state semifinals. Its kind of rubbing it in their face and being cocky, but its what theyve done for so long. Now were on top of the mountain looking down at them.

Without question, the view from the top is one that Aspen fans have savored during one of the best two-year stretches for athletics in school history.The banners that hang in Aspens spacious gym tell the story of a renaissance that came after years marked by a lack of team excellence.Before the fall of 2006, when Aspens boys soccer team clinched a league title en route to a 3A semifinal appearance, Aspen hadnt claimed a league title in any sport since 2001. Since then, league, district, regional and state titles have become commonplace.The success on the soccer pitch preceded a boys skiing title Aspens fourth in February 2007. Just eight days later, a talented group of six seniors many of whom starred for the Skiers in soccer led Aspen to its first state hockey title with a gritty 1-0 win over top-ranked Ralston Valley.Not to be forgotten were three individual state titles in less than five months from Noah Hoffman, one of the best athletes in Aspen history.Hoffman, now a promising U.S. national team prospect in nordic skiing, crushed the field at the 3A cross-country running championships in October 2006, then successfully defended his two nordic titles at Vail in February to help the Aspen boys to the team title.There was a perception that Aspens success during the 2006-2007 school year came in boys sports like skiing, hockey, soccer, where it wasnt out of the norm to expect strong results for a high school in an affluent ski town.The same cant be said of this past school year, when Aspens football team and boys basketball team captured the imagination of a town and put to rest some bothersome stereotypes. Namely, that rich, pampered boys from Aspen didnt possess the talent or desire to compete, much less dominate, in such sports.Eason and Parker both admit that those perceptions, true or untrue, helped fuel both teams during their winning seasons.There was some motivation to prove people wrong, Eason said. Its like everyone thinks, Youre richer than us, but well beat you in sports. Now, its like, Were going to beat you in sports and still be richer than you. We had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder like, Yeah, bring it on. Lets go.Such perceptions werent always there.Former athletic director Dave Conarroe has been around Aspen sports long enough nearly 30 years, with stints as both the boys and girls basketball coach to note that Aspens current success isnt without precedent.From 1967 to 1974, Aspen had the best football team on the Western Slope, claiming six league titles in eight years. More recently, Aspen won three straight league titles in boys basketball between 1999 and 2001, and the boys soccer team won four straight between 1997 and 2000. On the girls side, Aspen won 16 league volleyball titles between 1978 and 2000 and nearly half that many in girls basketball.Conarroe said high school athletics at a small school like Aspen are fickle by nature, with success often contingent on a number of variable factors. In the 1980s, Aspen teams mostly struggled. Numbers for teams were down, and it didnt help that Aspen was a little fish competing against a pool of schools with much higher enrollments.



By contrast, Conarroe said Aspens current hot streak at least in high-profile boys varsity sports can be tied to both circumstances inside and outside the school. Namely, playing in a classification with schools of similar enrollment, two senior classes brimming with talented athletes and capable coaches. Success can often be contagious, too taking root with one team, then spreading to others. Its a belief that success is possible rather than saying, Oh God, we suck, and it carries over in day-to-day living situations, Conarroe said. Its not a sense of entitlement, but a sense that were competitive from a personal and athletic standpoint. I think there is a connection.Eason said Aspens state championship in hockey which came against a school with three times as many students was a rallying cry for a football program which had known nothing but defeat for five seasons. A controversial coaching change also proved, in the end, to have a dramatic effect, as Sirko the district superintendents husband instilled a Why not us? attitude among players pining to prove themselves.Last year, I think it was, like, hell, if our hockey team wins state, why cant we win state? Eason said. I think that might have sparked us. Of course we got a new coach, and everyone knows that story, but if anything, we started to see it was possible for Aspen to be good at sports. I think this senior class really wanted it more than they ever have before, and they saw that it was possible.

Because of its triumphs in football and boys basketball, Conarroe said, the perception is that Aspen, at least for this year, is the dominant high school among the three in the valley who compete in the 3A Western Slope.That perception isnt entirely true. When it comes to girls sports, Basalt certainly can lay claim to being the valleys best. Basalts girls basketball team made its second-straight trip to the states Great Eight earlier this month after spending most of the season ranked atop the Rocky Mountain News 3A rankings. Its volleyball team cruised to another league title in the fall. Its girls soccer team made it all the way to the 3A semifinals last spring and is loaded for another state run this year.




Just like Aspens boys, the success is tied to a talented group of upperclassmen that includes seniors Kat Fitzpatrick and Dayne Toney two three-sport athletes with multiple league MVP and All-State honors between them.In boys soccer, too, Basalt remains the standard in the Western Slope league. After Aspens league triumph in 2006, the Longhorns reclaimed their top spot this fall, winning their fifth title in six years.By comparison, Aspens girls teams havent had nearly the same success as their male counterparts in recent years. Aspens last league title in volleyball came in 2001, its last in girls basketball in 2000. The most obvious reason for the dearth of winning girls teams the last two years especially this school year is an abnormal disparity between the number of boys and girls in this years senior class.Current athletic director Carol Sams said there are 75 boys in this years graduating class and only 55 girls. Aspens current junior and freshman classes are about even, while there are more girls in the sophomore class.Out of that additional 20 boys, theres a good chance you end up with one who can help, Conarroe said. Conversely, this years senior class suffered because there werent as many girls, but I think itll turn around as it always does. Its a cycle.Conarroe said, however, its unfair to simply chalk up the success of Aspens boys teams this year to the larger-than-average pool of potential athletes.Were relevant in sports like hockey and skiing all the time, but those are under-the-radar sports in most high school situations, he said. To be there in basketball, especially for Aspen, its unusual for a ski community to play basketball and play as well as these kids can play. That stems not from having 20 extra male athletes, but a few exceptionally gifted, driven ones, like Parker. Or one heck of a coach, like Sirko, who has made a career of reviving left-for-dead programs.You have to at least recognize that Mike did an amazing thing. If you just looked at that, youd say there was no way, Conarroe said. With Cory [Parker], you have a kid whos basically dedicated the last seven years of his life to basketball. When you have a kid in the community that drags other kids along, it turns into a wave of Were going to do this.Michael Taylor can speak to riding such a wave as far as it will go. Taking a cue from Parker, the 6-foot-7 senior emerged as a bonafide second scoring option this basketball season and was instrumental in Aspens rise to the top of the Western Slope league clearly illustrated by his game-winning dunk in the final seconds of Aspens second contest against Roaring Fork.When asked what has set Aspens most recent senior classes apart, Taylors answer was simple.I think it is just committed athletes, he said. With the hockey team, those guys have been playing for as long as Ive known them. Same with basketball and football. The commitment was really there to achieve something that nobody anticipated.npeterson@aspentimes.comSports reporter Jon Maletz contributed to this story

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