Another big test for Aspen football | AspenTimes.com

Another big test for Aspen football

Nate Peterson

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

CARBONDALE Since its return to varsity status in 2002, Aspen’s football team has never beaten its downvalley neighbor Roaring Fork, the best team in the 2A Western Slope for the past decade.Since taking over Aspen’s struggling program in January, first-year Skiers coach Mike Sirko has tried to expunge a losing mentality by getting his players to forget about past failures.That ugly past meets a promising present at 7 p.m. Friday in Carbondale when the surprising 3-1 Skiers butt heads with the equally surprising Rams. At 1-3, Roaring Fork enters the game in the unfamiliar position of trailing Aspen in the league standings.Under Sirko, Aspen already has matched its win total from last year when it finished 3-4 – its best record in five years.

Roaring Fork, meanwhile, is feeling the sting of losing all but three starters from last year’s team, which lost only one game during the regular season before falling to Trinidad in the first round of the 2A state playoffs. The loss marked the Rams’ eighth postseason appearance in 10 seasons.After a controversial hiring, Sirko has made believers out of his players and Skiers fans by leading his team to big wins over 3A Battle Mountain and rival Basalt, Aspen’s first since 2003. Last week, Aspen went on the road and hammered Cedaredge – one of its three wins from last year – to the tune of 46-6.Still, Sirko cautioned that Aspen’s program hasn’t turned the corner until it can compete with the perennial powers in the 2A Western Slope. It’s a list that starts with Roaring Fork and includes Gunnison and Olathe.”This is huge,” he said of tonight’s pivotal league matchup. “Roaring Fork has been a team that has dominated over the last few years, and even though they’ve lost some games, they came back last week and beat a pretty good Hotchkiss team. They’ve had their way with us, and it’s one of those things where we’ve got to come prepared.”

To say the Rams have had their way with the Skiers is to put it lightly. Roaring Fork has outscored Aspen 215-40 in the previous five meetings, including a 41-0 pasting in 2004 and last year’s 35-0 rout.Sirko said there is no secret to upsetting the Rams. What likely will decide tonight’s game is whichever team can run the football more effectively.”It’s hard to play a team that’s a lot like you,” Sirko said. “Their goals are the same. For us to win, it’s going to be one of those games where we’re going to have to control the football and keep the ball away from them and have some big defensive plays.”Sirko certainly isn’t fooled by the Rams’ record thus far. Two of Roaring Fork’s losses came against 3A powers (fifth-ranked Glenwood Springs and Eagle Valley), its other to what looks to be the best team in the 2A Western Slope this season, fourth-ranked Olathe.

Roaring Fork coach Mike Brinson chalked up his team’s early-season struggles to lack of experience and youth.”In years past, we’ve beaten those 3A teams; we’re just in one of those yearly cycles where we have a lot of inexperienced guys,” he said. “They’re a great group of guys, they just need more playing time.”Brinson also said, away from head-to-head matchups, he is a fan of both Aspen’s and Basalt’s programs, adding that the energy Sirko has injected into the Skiers is great for football in the valley as a whole. He expects tonight’s game to be more competitive, and has cautioned his players not to make the mistake of overlooking Aspen.”What’s important for us is to concentrate on our game,” he said. “Stick to what we do well. We prepare for it just like we do every game … Coach Sirko has done a great job, getting his younger group of kids to follow in his program. He keeps it simple, and the kids have a lot of confidence when you do that. It’s obvious when you watch the film that they’re a different team.”

One of the reasons Brinson believes his Rams won’t misjudge Aspen is that a handful of his best players – including starting running back and linebacker Jake Kinney – practiced right alongside Skiers’ standouts Tucker Eason and Beau Seguin this summer at the prestigious Manning Passing Academy at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. While there, Eason and Kinney grew to respect each other while sweating underneath the hot Louisiana sun.Tonight, the one-on-one matchup between the two players could go a long way in deciding whether the Skiers have put five years of humbling losses behind them, or whether Roaring Fork makes it six straight.”There are some plays where No. 32 from Aspen is going to be matched up right across from No. 44 from Roaring Fork,” Brinson said. “You gotta bet that these kids are fired up for that because of how much they respect each other.”Find coverage of the game Friday night at aspentimes.com.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com