Aspen football wins wild home opener, beats No. 8 Montezuma-Cortez, 40-28

Aspen High’s Storm Silich runs against Montezuma-Cortez on Friday, April 2, 2021, on the AHS turf.
Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

After falling down early, the Aspen High School football team was able to stay at least a step ahead of No. 8 Montezuma-Cortez the rest of the way in a 40-28 win on Friday night in the Skiers’ home opener.

The win also signifies a bigger step taken by a young team that had started the one-off spring season with a pair of losses.

“We absolutely took a step forward. I’m proud of the effort,” AHS coach Travis Benson said. “I’m not saying we didn’t have effort the last two weeks, but they ground through some hard times.”

The Skiers came into the game needing a win to keep their bleak playoff hopes alive in the shorted six-game pandemic season. As Benson hinted at earlier in the week, the first half was a shootout between two high-tempo spread offenses that were able to light up the scoreboard. According to the AHS stat keepers, the teams combined for 114 plays in the nearly two-hour long first half.

Aspen fumbled on its first play of the game, leading to a quick Panther touchdown less than a minute into the contest. It didn’t take long for AHS to regroup, with young quarterback Nate Thomas connecting with Judd Gurtman on a 35-yard touchdown for an 8-6 lead only four minutes in.

Montezuma-Cortez retook the lead not even two minutes later at 14-8, only to have the Skiers answer with a second Gurtman touchdown catch to make it 14-all (neither team attempted a standard extra-point kick the entire game).

The back-and-forth went on from there, with Aspen leading 20-14 after a quarter thanks to a 30-yard connection from Thomas to Charlie Williams. At halftime, the Skiers led 32-20, including yet another Gurtman grab with only 18 seconds to go before the break.

“We made our own mistakes, too, and those are the things we have to clear up as we get into the rest of the schedule,” Benson said of the offense. “I am proud of the offense. They got it rolling. Nate did a great job. But yeah, we got to clean up the little things.”

The game became increasingly sloppy late into the second quarter and into the second half, with turnovers and penalties dominating the flow. Neither team scored in the third quarter, leading to the Panthers scoring on a short TD run by quarterback Ty Blackmer to make it 32-28 with just under eight minutes to play in the fourth.

The Skiers effectively put the game away about 30 seconds later with an 80-yard connection from Thomas to Noah Akin. The Aspen defense made sure that was the end to the scoring.

“Defense in the second half, it truly was everybody running to the ball and that’s what makes a difference,” Benson said. “When you are pursuing and you are running to the ball, you are always going to have a lot of success.”

The loss dropped Montezuma-Cortez to 1-2 overall. The Panthers opened the season with a 12-3 win at Steamboat Springs before a 27-12 loss to Glenwood Springs last week. All regular-season games are league games this spring.

Aspen improved to 1-2 with the win after losses to Glenwood (41-14) and Rifle (56-14) to open the season. The Bears are No. 2 in Class 3A at the moment and play at No. 1 Basalt on Saturday afternoon.

“It feels good. I’m proud of these kids. They played with a lot of heart. Cortez played hard, too,” Benson said. “It could have gone either way there in the early part of the third quarter and that’s what I’m proud of, is just the effort and the attitude to get out there and play hard for four total quarters of football.”

The Skiers will host Steamboat Springs next week.