Midnight marks start of AHS hoop season | AspenTimes.com

Midnight marks start of AHS hoop season

They came slouching in around 11:15 p.m., dragging sleeping bags behind them.

Their parents tried to sneak in a last goodbye ” kisses wiped away, hugs squirmed out of. “Good luck,” a mother whispered.

The kids were equipped, courtesy of their worrisome parents, with enough emergency supplies ” granola bars, energy drinks, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ” to feed a small community for weeks.

Steve Ketchum, dressed all in black, looked over his players, a whistle dangling from his neck.

At 12:01 a.m. it began. The squeaks of high-tops, the shrill coach’s whistle, shouts of encouragement and despair ” Aspen High School Basketball had commenced.

According to state high school regulations, teams are not allowed to start organized practice until Nov. 13. Always looking for an advantage, head coach Ketchem took the state at its word, choosing to have his first practice immediately after midnight Wednesday. The top-15 basketball players in the school were given the honor of attending “midnight madness.”

The team looked predictably rusty in their first practice. It is a young squad, a team still struggling to find its identity after losing its best players to graduation. Still, it’s clear they work hard and work together, a rarity in basketball these days.

“I feel like the team looked pretty good for a first practice,” Ketchum said. “Obviously we’ve got a lot to work on, but this is the best team chemistry I’ve seen in all my years of coaching.”

Ketchum, with a team of dedicated assistants and volunteers, intends to use the next two weeks for a period of intense training. His coaching staff will run practice twice a day for the varsity, alternating focus between offense and defense.

For the foreseeable future, one of the “coaches” helping Ketchum will be Doog White, an injured player. It was discovered last year that White had a benign tumor growing in his leg. The pressure was so intense it caused the bones in his leg to atrophy.

He was treated and made a recovery, only to fracture the same leg a few weeks ago in a hunting accident. He is a warm, affable young man, quiet and gentle for a teenager nearly 7 feet in stature, and it’s clear that the other players rally around him for inspiration and support.

After practice, the players piled into the Skier Dome to catch a few hours sleep before school. Predictably, none of the students got much rest.

“First off, the wooden floor wasn’t too comfortable,” team captain Moss Schermerhorn said the following afternoon. “But then the ventilation system went off in the middle of the night. It was way too noisy to sleep. I feel like my legs have been chopped off, I’m so tired.”

In a team meeting before the first whistle blew, Ketchum had tried to explain his reasoning to his players .

“You know what our rivals are doing right now?” Ketchum asked his team. “They are sleeping. I guarantee you that when you guys play your first game, you will be the best-prepared high school team in the state, whatever the level.”

Puffy, tired eyes looked up at Ketchum, wanting to believe. A particularly vicious stomach flu ripped through the high school last week, and many of the students were still feeling the effects. A sophomore had passed out two days earlier while in line for a ski pass. A junior still had a temperature of 100 degrees.

Still, in the locker room before practice, you could tell there was nowhere else the students wanted to be. Legs fidgeting, coaches pacing, everyone waiting anxiously for midnight, there was a palpable excitement in the air, optimistic and distinct. A new season was about to begin.

At that moment, as the hands of the clock approached the magic hour, the basketball team was as good as its potential. It’s that special moment in sports ” the calm before a ski run, the silence before an opening serve ” when the outcome is still unknown, players are as great as they dare dream to be, and nothing, not even defeat, has yet left its irreparable mark.

[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com]

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