Lauded Skiers eager to prove their worth | AspenTimes.com

Lauded Skiers eager to prove their worth

Jon MaletzAspen, CO Colorado

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

ASPEN Memories of March 2 linger in Michael Taylor’s head.The sure lay-up that circled the rim and lipped out with three minutes remaining. The uncharacteristic late fouls. The errant shots. The squandered seven-point halftime lead. The Aspen basketball team’s hopes of a title run were derailed in the first round of last season’s state tournament against Roosevelt. As a result, the Skiers were in Fort Collins to watch the “Great 8″ from the stands instead of the court.”We got away from playing smart down the stretch in that game,” Taylor said Wednesday. “It still bothers me, and it’s still on my mind, but it’s inspired me to work harder.”The 6-foot-8-inch senior was in the weight room the Monday after Aspen returned from Fort Collins. He’s been there an average of five times a week ever since. Taylor and the Skiers hope work ethic helps shoulder the burden of high expectation during the upcoming season. Eight Aspen seniors hope this is the year they fulfill a dream forged during their days in the middle school recreation league.”We know this is our last chance,” said senior Cory Parker, a first-team all-state selection last season. “There’s no tomorrow. There’s no another day. We’ve wanted this since seventh grade.”There are reasons for optimism. The first is Parker, a dependable 6-foot-7-inch Division I prospect, who averaged a double double (23 1/2 points and 10 rebounds) last season and who has distinguished himself as one of Colorado’s best. The three-year varsity starter is being courted by the Air Force Academy, the University of Northern Colorado, Dartmouth and Harvard, among others.

Parker was at his best in last year’s playoff opener, when he carried his team with 28 points before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. Aspen learned the hard way that it couldn’t win with production from one player – the other Skiers scored just 12 points. Parker won’t be alone this year. Aspen returns six players and 10 lettermen from last year’s squad, which finished 16-7 overall and 11-3 in league play. Not only is the team deep at nearly every position, but they are versatile; the Skiers pose matchup problems because of their size – three players are 6 feet, 7 inches or taller – and speed. “We can go big and slow, we can huge with no one under 6-[foot]-3 on the court, and we can go small and really quick,” Ketchum said. “We can adjust the way we play to other teams, or we can make them adjust to us.”Competing against the front-line tandem of Parker and Taylor could prove daunting for the rest of the Slope. Taylor, who Ketchum said might be the state’s most improved player, has added nearly 25 pounds of muscle and 8 to 10 inches on his vertical leap.

“He’s lived in the weight room since last March,” Ketchum said. “He used to be skinny and timid, but now look at him. He’s dunking on people.”Teaming with Parker and Taylor in the starting lineup will likely be 6-foot-2-inch forward Brian Westerlind. The senior was a first-team all-conference selection last season. All-conference deep-ball threat Tommy Rittenhouse and sophomore floor leader and defensive stopper Matthew Holmes will anchor the backcourt. As many as seven bench players should see considerable playing time this season – a luxury Ketchum said he hasn’t had in past seasons.”In many years, I’ve looked down the bench and was scared to death to make a substitution,” he added. “That is not the case this year.”We have good skill. … I’ve had teams with cockiness and self confidence. They had no fear. Once we get to that point, we could be great.”

The Skiers are expected to dethrone Roaring Fork as league champion. The Rams were 25-2 last season en route to a state tournament consolation bracket championship. They’ve won an unprecedented 52 straight games in conference dating back to 2003, but lost a talented senior class. The addition of 6-foot-2 inch foreign exchange student Matthias Weissl, a member of Austria’s U18 national team, along with the play of senior Torrey Udall should ease the transition. Ketchum believes this Skiers squad is one of the best in school history. He believes they could and should make the final four. Aspen will be tested early; it hosts an exhibition tournament today and will play 4A Glenwood Springs, Delta and Battle Mountain, plus 5A Fruita Monument. It opens the regular season Nov. 30 with 4A Eagle Valley, then hosts 2007 2A state champion Grand Valley on Dec. 1. Expectations from inside and outside the program are high, but Ketchum said he’s been careful about not looking too far ahead.”When you’re at the top, you’re exposed, and there’s farther to fall,” he said. “We have to try not to focus on that grandiose thing that’s out there. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds unfortunately tend to believe everything that’s written about them and how great people say they are. … I’ve told my guys that this will be over in a heartbeat, and you can’t get anything back. You have to live every moment like it’s your last.”Last year’s disappointment will prove beneficial, Ketchum said. So, too, will Aspen’s improbable state football berth. Many basketball players donned pads and helmets for the 7-3 Skiers this fall. “It was a different sport, but we got to experience the atmosphere of another big-pressure game,” said Parker, who was a first-team all-conference wide receiver and defensive lineman in his first and only season with the team. “It’s important to know what’s at stake.”

That hasn’t been difficult, Ketchum said. “I could see the looks on their faces [in Fort Collins],” he added. “They saw the D-I gym, the excitement of the crowd. They thought they should’ve been there. I don’t have to say a lot.”Taylor is ready for the talk to cease and the ball to jump. He is ready to be a competitor instead of a spectator.”Where we are right now, we’re in the position we want to be in,” he said. “It’s time we show we’re not just a good regular-season team. It’s time we prove what we’re capable of.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com