Two-a-days and preseason scrimmages are over. Game film has been studied. Last-minute strategies have been employed. It’s time to play.
All three Roaring Fork Valley high schools open their 2004 football campaigns this weekend, and all three are playing host.
Roaring Fork High, which finished 11-1 last season ” its only loss came to Denver Christian in the Class 2A state semifinals, is ranked fifth in the Class 2A preseason polls despite losing 16 graduating players last season. Friday, Sept. 3, the Rams host Glenwood Springs, whom they beat 7-3 last year.
Basalt High, which opens against Meeker Saturday, Sept. 4, has improved each of the last three years. In 2001, the Longhorns were winless at 0-9, and in 2002 they were 1-8. Last year, Basalt went 3-6 under first-year head coach Forrest Grosh, and this year’s squad looks much stronger. Clayton Peetz, the Longhorns top rusher last season who has garnered some attention from college scouts, will be running behind a big, experienced offensive line. Basalt squeezed by Meeker 2-0 in last season’s opener.
Aspen High has lost its top player in standout tailback Dusty Stutsman, who is playing for Santa Barbara City College in California. And though the Skiers turnout numbers are up, they’re young and inexperienced. And, as usual, the team will be forced to play a host of freshmen.
Aspen was also hit with a heavy emotional and physical loss earlier this summer when starting tight end Alex Terral was killed in a car accident. Terral was a quiet leader and at 6 feet 7 inches tall, a great target for quarterback Pat Faurer. On Saturday, the Skiers host Norwood, which knocked off Aspen 36-28 last year.
All three valley high schools are part of the Western Slope Conference, which competes in Class 2A. But over the last several years, their football teams couldn’t have been farther apart. Roaring Fork has been a perennial powerhouse in the conference, and last season was no exception. The Rams outscored their Western Slope foes 284-56, including a five-game streak in which the team put up at least 41 points per game.
Roaring Fork beat La Junta and Estes Park in the playoffs last season before getting blanked by state champs Denver Christian 28-0 in the semifinals. Denver Christian would go on to shut out Eaton 26-0 in the title game.
Expectations are high again this season, but Roaring Fork head coach Tory Jensen is a little cautious. After all, the Rams return only three starters.
“That’s a little premature right now,” Jensen said about the team’s top-five ranking.
Injuries have also plagued the Rams through fall camp, as a tough scrimmage schedule, which included Eagle Valley and bigger class 3A schools Glenwood Springs and Alamosa, has left several starters licking their wounds.
“We’re beat up,” Jensen said. “Right now we need to get healthy.”
The strength of the team at this point is the offensive backfield, which includes a trio of athletic runners in junior Cody Jeffryes, and seniors Christian Tena and Jake Bowman. Senior Aaron Markham, who started a couple of games at quarterback last season, rounds out the bunch.
“It’s a pretty talented group of kids, those four,” Jensen said. “Aaron is a pretty good quarterback, we’ll do what the defense gives us ” we have the ability to run and pass, and we’ll stretch the defense from sideline to sideline.”
Look for seniors Jason Holden and Pat Amborn to lead things in the trenches on both sides of the ball, while junior Parker Nieslanik is the top incoming receiver.
“Our strength is our overall team speed; our weakness is our experience,” Jensen said.
Inexperienced but well-conditioned and strong, the Rams pride themselves in their commitment to offseason workouts, which includes weight training and rugby.
“They’re workout freaks,” Jensen said. “We have kids that just live in the weight room.”
Aspen and Basalt met for the first time this year on Saturday, Aug. 28, during a four-squad scrimmage at Aspen High. Hotchkiss and Sorocco also participated.
In years past, the rivals have been on the same level, which has been at the bottom of the conference. Last year, though, the Skiers manhandled the Longhorns at home for a 24-8 win. But things may be changing.
Basalt looked bigger, faster and stronger than Aspen in this year’s scrimmage, with an experienced offensive line opening gaping holes for Peetz.
Aspen High head coach Tom Goode said there may be a shift in the conference this season, as Roaring Fork graduated almost their entire team, and Basalt is looking strong and confident.
“If they play their cards right, they should be one of the best teams in the conference,” Goode said about Basalt. “They’re going to be the team to beat.”
Basalt may have taken notice of Roaring Fork’s work ethic, either that or head coach Grosh knows that a team can’t compete without a dedication to offseason workouts. Grosh has kept the weight room at Basalt High open year-round for his players since his arrival.
“Our front line definitely put a lot of time in the weight room,” Grosh said. “And it’s definitely paying off.”
Seniors Justin Kovach and Derek Senn and junior Riley Eaton are the anchors on the line, while senior quarterback Cody Burkholder returns under center. Peetz will lead the rushing attack.
“He’s one of the hardest working kids in the entire school. He has a great work ethic and determination to win,” Grosh said of Peetz. “He’s a great kid to be around altogether.”
The young coach has brought something new to Basalt football, and he feels good not just about this season, but about the future of the program.
“There’s an energy in the community and within the school,” he said. “When I got there and talked about Basalt football, people had a lot of negative things to say. But now we have that positive energy from schoolteachers, the community and the students. There’s a lot of excitement; hopefully we’ll build on that.”
Following the weekend scrimmage, Aspen coach Goode remained optimistic.
“It was a win-win situation for everyone that came,” he said. “It was a perfect way to start.”
Goode has been fighting an uphill battle at Aspen High, where turnout has typically been low and motivation sometimes questionable. Last year, star player Stutsman expressed frustration over the poor turnout and questioned the dedication of some of his teammates.
But this year turnout is up; close to 15 freshman have come out for the team. Goode credits much of that to the Three Rivers peewee football league, which is becoming increasingly popular. In the past, most Aspen players had little or no organized football experience by the time they reached high school. Now, a host of freshman arrive with several years experience under their belts.
“It’s helping us all,” Goode said, referring to Three Rivers. “Football has been revived.”
Plus, Aspen returns 13 starters this year, although most are playing both sides of the field. “Obviously we’re not deep in a lot of positions,” Goode said.
And while Stutsman will be sorely missed, the question is how much?
Goode, who is painfully aware that his players may be questioning their potential without Stutsman, said he often replies, “Dusty who?”
But the coach admits that Stutsman’s departure ” he’s currently third on the running backs depth chart at Santa Barbara City College ” is a huge loss.
“How could you not miss a guy like that?” Goode asked. “He was an inspirational leader, he just loves football.”
Taking over for Stutsman at tailback is junior Jackson Davis, who gained some experience last year. The rest of the offensive backfield is lead by a pair of seniors in quarterback Pat Faurer and fullback Jake Welsh.
Both are tough and experienced, and Welsh has good size at 6 feet 3 inches tall and more than 200 pounds. “He’s the heart and soul of the team,” Goode said about Welsh.
Faurer is clearly the offensive leader, though, as he returns for his third year under center. “He’s tough,” Goode said about Faurer, who doubles as a starting linebacker. “He’d be my No. 1 fullback if he wasn’t playing quarterback. He’s one tough son of a gun.”
The offensive line features sophomore sensation David Clark, whom Goode feels will garner attention from college recruiters this season. Clark is 6 feet 2 inches tall and 230 pounds ” and he hasn’t finished growing.
“He’s making leaps and bounds,” Goode said. “He’s come a long way in a year.”
The weakest link on the field at this point is the secondary, Goode said, which is also the youngest unit. “We have such a young defensive secondary,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Goode said the challenge every year is to keep his players’ confidence up and mental mistakes down.
“We’ve got to keep on top of our mental game,” he said. “If we stop beating ourselves, we can be in every game this year.”
But perhaps Aspen’s greatest challenge is coping with the loss of Alex Terrel.
“We all miss Alex, our whole season is dedicated to him,” Goode said. “We’re all having a hard time with it.”
Steve Benson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org