Cardinals KO Skiers | AspenTimes.com

Cardinals KO Skiers

Nate Peterson

Aspen tailback Whit Fuller drags a Grand Valley defender with him in first-quarter action Friday night at the Aspen School District field. The Skiers lost their home opener, 24-0. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

The lights were bright, eager fans lined the field, and the new turf looked great.The only thing missing Friday night was a win.The excitement from the return of Friday night lights to Aspen High School after a 16-year hiatus was palpable at the start of the Skiers’ first home game of the season, against Grand Valley. With a top-notch facility – and its biggest home crowd in years – it seems Aspen’s varsity football program has a bright future.But there’s no denying, after 24-0 loss to the Cardinals, that it still has ways to go.The Skiers offense was held scoreless for its second consecutive game and turned the ball over five times. Aspen compiled 272 yards of total offense, a drastic turnaround from the 37-2 loss at Battle Mountain the week before when the Skiers struggled to move the ball at all. But, when it mattered most, Aspen couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone. The closest the offense came was at the end of the first half, when Grand Valley stuffed running back Whit Fuller on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line as time expired.”It’s all about red-zone efficiency,” Skiers head coach Travis Benson said. “I think the actual offense was a 180-degree turnaround from last week. There was execution. The problem was there was no red-zone execution. That’s one thing we have to correct.”

Meanwhile, the Cardinals had no problem moving the ball. Grand Valley running back Danny Manzaneres accounted for nearly as many yards as Aspen as he creased the Skiers defense for 260 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries.Wideout Tyler Jenson added the other Cardinals score on a 26-yard touchdown from Richard Gallegos with 2:25 remaining in the second quarter.”Danny is our guy,” Cardinals head coach Mike Johnson said of his shifty senior back. “He’s one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever coached. Last year, in the first quarter of the first game, he broke his tibia and missed the whole season. He’s got a steel rod in his leg. We’re just happy to have him back.”Aspen caught the Cardinals off guard at the start of the game when it successfully recovered an onside kick. The Skiers then fumbled away the momentum on the second play from scrimmage, at the Cardinals’ 25-yard line. Manzaneres went to work from there, taking a delayed handoff on first down and slicing through the Skiers defense for a 50-yard gain. Five plays later, on fourth and inches, the Grand Valley back plowed into the end zone.Aspen’s defense held Grand Valley twice after that, but Aspen’s offense couldn’t generate any momentum – going four and out on its second possession, then being forced to punt on its third possession after picking up one first down.Grand Valley took over on Aspen’s 43-yard line and scored five plays later, a drive capped by a 15-yard Manzaneres sweep into the quarter of the end zone.

On the next Aspen possession, quarterback Harry Maniloff threw the first of his two interceptions to Jensen – a pick that Grand Valley subsequently turned right back over to Aspen. With new life, Aspen picked up a first down on a Maniloff completion to Matt Beirne, then got another big first down on a 15-yard Grand Valley personal foul. The penalty set up Aspen at the Cardinals 26. Then, on second and 15 from the Cardinals 21, Maniloff was again picked off, this time by Matt Cain.After Jensen scored his touchdown late in the quarter, Aspen mounted its longest drive of the night, going 62 yards all the way down to the Cardinals 3-yard line.But Aspen couldn’t reach the end zone on three consecutive plays. Grand Valley nearly picked off Maniloff on a slant pass, then stuffed Fuller twice.Aspen senior lineman David Clark lined up at fullback on the final two running plays, but the ploy couldn’t stop the swarm of Cardinals defenders from breaking through the line.

“We just kind of ran into a brick wall at the 20,” Clark said. “It happened repeatedly. We were moving the ball at will across the field. We could put it wherever we wanted whenever we wanted but we were just having trouble at the end.”Manzaneres’ final touchdown came with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter after he finished off a 6-play, 49-yard drive with an 8-yard run up the middle.Beirne had a pick on Grand Valley’s next possession. Benson was upbeat after the loss, noting that the Skiers have two weeks off before they head downvalley to play rival Basalt. Hopefully, with nine full practices, the Skiers can turn the season around, he said.”I think for sure that there was some nerves at first, but they should have been excitement nerves tonight,” he said. “You’re going to have to play the first game at some point under the lights. Now it’s out of the belt, so hopefully we can move on from here. We just need to get back to work. We need two solid weeks of work with this bye week coming up to get ready for Basalt.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com