Column: Smiling faces behind the Aspen facemasks
October 26, 2015
When the Aspen High School football team was threatened by the blitz of a midseason coaching suspension, Chris Peshek knew exactly what the Skiers needed.
He's seen plenty of blitzes before: nine years as an assistant high school football coach, six years of study in the Mike Sirko Graduate School of Football, and football roots that reach to one of the best high school coaches in Nebraska history.
"We told the players that this is not about the coaches — this is about the players," said Peshek, who took over as the Aspen interim head coach after the tumultuous turnover that saw the former head coach and former defensive coordinator leave the program. "We told them that it's all about them."
Peshek, a longtime Aspen physical therapist and assistant coach, said that he and the coaching staff made a concerted effort to help the players enjoy the game of football again.
"I was fortunate that we have a great group of coaches with a great, positive mindset," Peshek said. "We're getting the kids to believe in themselves. We truly want the kids to have a smile on their faces."
In spite of the administrative changes and a rash of injuries and suspensions, the Skiers transformed what might have been a forlorn season with perhaps their best half of football all year on the road against the best team in the Western Slope North League last weekend.
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The Skiers, who had been overpowered at Battle Mountain a week earlier, rebounded at Craig against the state-ranked Moffat County Bulldogs.
"We played great for a half up there," Peshek said of the stunning opening half that saw the Skiers trail the heavily favored Bulldogs only 13-11. "They broke some long plays in the second half, but by the end of the game we knew we had gone toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the state."
While the Skiers could sense the frustration from Moffat County and its fans, Peshek said he could see smiling faces behind the facemasks on the Aspen sideline.
The powerhouse Bulldogs, ranked as high as No. 4 in the state in some 2A prep polls, pulled away for a 46-11 victory.
But the spirited play of the Skiers resonated.
"I've been very fortunate to be part of the high school program for many years, and I spent six years under Mike Sirko learning how to develop a positive culture," Peshek said of the onetime Aspen head coach who is Colorado's sixth-winningest coach of all time. Sirko led the Skiers to the playoffs six consecutive seasons — with Peshek as assistant coach.
Peshek said Sirko was insightful in that he wanted his coaches to let the players know they matter.
"We're there for the kids," Peshek said. "The last few weeks, we've had a huge emphasis that we appreciate each and every one of the kids — we love each and every one of the kids."
Plus, he said, the coaching staff encouraged the players to relax and play and not worry so much about mistakes.
At the Thursday team dinner before the trip to Craig, Peshek invited longtime Aspenite Tom Crum to speak to the team.
"He talked to the kids about not worrying about being perfect," Peshek said. "Don't worry about making a mistake. Be aware; be in the moment; play."
Those words harken back to the most influential coach in Peshek's past.
"I was very blessed to play for a high school coach who was Nebraska's winningest coach at the time," Peshek said.
His coach was stern and hard-nosed but loving and supportive, the first to put an arm around a player in need of comfort.
He was Ken Fischer, a former great player at the University of Nebraska. He coached at Grand Island High School on his way to induction into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
Not to mention his lifelong influence on a linebacker and offensive guard for the Islanders who went on to become the head coach of the Aspen Skiers.
"He was a huge influence," Peshek said, looking back on his coach's legacy of developing young men.
Fischer, no doubt, inspired Peshek to coach high school football.
Peshek and the AHS staff will lead the Skiers into the final regular-season game Friday night against rival Basalt at Aspen School District Stadium.
"I've been around these kids since they were toddlers," he said of the Skiers, including son A.J. Peshek, the Aspen quarterback and linebacker.
And they are resilient, he said.
"Sometimes, Aspen kids get a bad rap out there," Peshek said. "But the makeup of this team is the same as any other high school team. These are hardworking kids like kids on any other team. … I think we're heading in the right direction."
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