Football: Aspen, Eaton set to clash again | AspenTimes.com

Football: Aspen, Eaton set to clash again

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Mike Sirko was effusive in his praise of the 2011 Eaton football team.

“They’re probably the best team we’ve played here in five years,” the Aspen coach admitted last November while consoling his players after a 48-20 loss to the Reds in the first round of the 2A state tournament. “Today, we just ran into a buzz saw.”

The good news: Despite limping to the finish, the Skiers (6-3) accrued enough wild-card points to book a sixth consecutive trip to the postseason.

The bad: The buzz saw is back.

Fifteenth-ranked Aspen will square off with No. 2 Eaton (9-0) in Saturday’s first round for the third time in the past six seasons. Any hopes of a Skiers upset hinge on their ability to slow standout tailback Austin Ekeler, who torched them last fall and has not slowed since.

“This young man, he’s a pretty impressive player,” Sirko said. “He does everything for them. … When you have someone with those kinds of statistics leading your troops into battle, why not give him the ball?”

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The Reds gave Ekeler the ball often against Sirko’s bunch in 2011, and he responded in impressive fashion. He broke free for a 76-yard scoring scamper on the game’s first offensive play, tacked on two more touchdowns (one receiving) and finished with 218 yards on the ground.

Ekeler has been even better in 2012, somehow managing to improve his 10-yards-per-carry average from his breakout junior campaign despite shouldering more of the offensive load. He’s rushed for 2,176 yards and 34 touchdowns, accounting for nearly 242 yards and 25 points per game.

In his past three games alone, Ekeler has piled up 868 yards – nearly a half mile – and 14 touchdowns. He’s rushed for at least three scores in every game this season, helping fuel an Eaton offense that scored nearly 48 points per game during its perfect run through the 2A Patriot league.

“Trust me, we know what we’re getting into,” Sirko said. “In the last six years, we’ve played some good teams in season and the postseason. They’re definitely up there. We’re excited to see how we match up.”

He jokingly added, “At the very least, we know where to get hotels and places to eat.”

The Skiers struggled mightily against the 2A Western’s elite squads, falling to Bayfield and Grand Valley – the state tournament’s third and fifth seeds, respectively – by a combined total of 63-29. Against a polished, efficient Bayfield option attack, Aspen surrendered four touchdown runs of 50 or more yards.

The Skiers’ poorest showing likely came last week, when they could muster just one field goal in a loss to Basalt.

“You never like to back into the playoffs,” Sirko admitted. “But when you look at us having just four starters coming back from last year, losing the state’s leading passer (Tucker Beirne), having a lot of holes to fill and losing Casey (Hornburg) for much of the season, the young kids responded well I thought. I’d like to make some noise in the playoffs, but we really do feel fortunate just to be here.”

Whether Aspen sticks around largely will depend on whether it can avoid a slow start – Eaton led 21-0 after one quarter and 35-14 at the half last year – and generate turnovers, something it could not do against the Reds in 2011 or 2007, when the Skiers made their first postseason appearance since 1974.

Sirko said he is drawing inspiration from that 2007 season as he prepares his kids this week.

“I remember a team in my first year that upset No. 4 Olathe at our place,” he said. “They made a lot of mistakes, and at the last second, we were able to capitalize and keep it close enough. If it’s close in the fourth quarter, anything can happen. Anyone can make mistakes. Crazy things happen every week.”

A win Saturday certainly would qualify.

“We’re excited to have an opportunity to play one of the best teams in the state,” Sirko said. “It’s like I tell the kids: ‘What else would you rather be doing this Saturday?'”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com