Football: Aspen on the road again | AspenTimes.com

Football: Aspen on the road again

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Jim Ryan/Special to The Aspen TimesQuinn Morehead picks off a pass during the Skiers' Oct. 28's game against Olathe. Aspen faces a stiff test in Eaton on Saturday.

ASPEN – Mike Sirko is embracing the underdog role. As the postseason nears, the Aspen head football coach insists there is no pressure on his Skiers.

Not on the players, at least.

“I don’t sleep. … I can hardly work today. I’m sure my boss won’t like that,” Aspen assistant Rueben Burbach joked Thursday afternoon. “If I have film in my hands or am game planning, I’m trying to make sure everything is covered. I always feel like there’s something I’m missing. It’s about putting kids in the right situation to make a play or calling the right blitz here or there.

“I’m nervous all the time whether its July or now, but I’m excited for these kids and excited for this program. To keep it going five years in a row, how can you not be excited about that?”

By virtue of last week’s come-from-behind victory in Carbondale, Aspen (7-3) locked up second place in the 2A Western Slope and secured a fifth consecutive playoff berth – a feat that likely “still has people scratching their heads” in disbelief, Burbach said.

The Skiers, seeded 12th in the 16-team state tournament, now will take the long – and familiar – trip to the Front Range to take on fifth-seeded Eaton, a perennial state title contender from the Patriot league.

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The two teams squared off in the first round in 2007. The Reds, led by do-

everything quarterback Seth Lobato – now the starter at the University of Northern Colorado – cruised to a 30-7 win over Aspen, which was making its first postseason appearance in 33 years.

“That first year, I’m not saying we were just happy to be there but there was a different attitude with that being our first time in the playoffs in a while,” Sirko said. “This time, it was more of an expectation even though we did it the hard way. Now we’re here and are relieved to be playing another week. … We’re excited for the shot.”

It could be a long shot.

The Reds (8-2) are averaging more than 41 points per game and have been equally as impressive on defense, holding opponents to about nine points per game. They have surrendered seven or fewer points in six contests.

Eaton has lost two games – to Windsor, the fifth seed in the 3A state tournament, and Brush, 2A’s top seed – by a total of just two points.

The Reds jumped out to 14-0 and 28-14 leads in their Oct. 14 conference clash with the unbeaten Beetdiggers, who battled back to force overtime. After finding the end zone in the extra period, Eaton opted to attempt a two-point conversion rather than a game-tying extra point and came up short.

Quarterback Jaden Olearnick threw for 233 yards and four touchdowns – two to wide receiver Britten Abbott – in that contest. The efficient if not dominant signal caller has thrown for 1,151 yards and 16 touchdowns this season while being intercepted just three times.

Tailback Austin Ekeler leads a diverse Reds ground game with 719 yards and 19 touchdowns. He is averaging nearly 9 yards a carry while running behind an offensive line that “goes about 250 or 260 [pounds],” Burbach said.

“I think they’re bigger this time around, and they’ve played everybody tough. … Going in there, you can either be afraid or scared or play your best,” the coach added. “We can’t be sitting there saying, ‘Oh god, they only lost to Brush by one.’ We’ve built a program on taking on everybody. We’re not going to shy away now.

“We’re going to have to try to neutralize their offensive line – obviously, that’s where everything starts. They’re big and physical and have two good running backs to give the ball to. On the other side of the ball, we have to get Casey [Hornburg] going, get him on the outside and hopefully get 4 or 5 yards [a carry]. That will open up Tucker [Beirne].”

Hornburg has rushed for 1,003 yards and nine scores for Aspen, which has won a playoff game in each of the last two seasons. The Skiers have excelled through the air, too, with Beirne throwing for 21 touchdowns and 1,878 yards. His favorite target, big-play threat Quinn Morehead, has hauled in 71 passes for 1,048 yards and 11 scores.

Austin Roark also could be a factor. While he has just 15 catches for 223 yards, the sure-handed, 6-foot-6 senior creates a mismatch ever time he lines up.

“The kids have worked so hard for this opportunity,” Burbach said. “Nobody expected us to be here. It’s always nice to prove people wrong.

“In this game of emotions, this game of high school football, you never know what can happen, especially if you want it bad enough.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com