Two playoff teams, two circumstances | AspenTimes.com

Two playoff teams, two circumstances

Jon Maletz

Aspen junior striker Nicky Anastas (11) goes down after Vail Mountain defender Max Avery (16) stops him while advancing on the goal during the first half Saturday. Aspen defeated the visiting Gore Rangers, 4-3. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

Today’s soccer showdown between Aspen and Basalt might seem to encompass all of the passion and excitement spectators witnessed in rivalry games between the two schools Saturday in football and volleyball.But considering the circumstances, the game seems likely to turn into a formality instead of a spectacle. Aspen (10-4, 7-2), quietly putting together one of the strongest seasons in its history, clinched its first postseason berth since 2003 last week. Because the Skiers kick off postseason play Thursday at home against Colorado Academy, Aspen coach Grant Sutherland said Monday he plans to rest his players today.”Basalt has won the league, and I don’t want to risk hurting my players,” Sutherland said. “It’s just one of those things. If it was a week away, then OK, but we need to think ahead.”

Basalt (12-2, 9-0), which clinched a fifth consecutive Western Slope title Oct. 14, is following a different school of thought, coach Erik Streff said Monday. Because the Longhorns will not receive word about their opponent in districts until Sunday, the team has the luxury – and responsibility – to maintain its momentum.Similarly, goals remain for Basalt to attain. Aspen is all that stands in the way of the Longhorns’ first undefeated conference record since 2001, when they went 11-0. The Longhorns were 9-0-1 in Western Slope play in both 2003 and 2004. “Because we don’t know who we’ll play next week, this is what we have to play for,” Streff said. “Going undefeated and getting primed and ready to go in the playoffs is important. Aspen is always a tough team to play, and we look forward to it.”There is good reason for Basalt to be eager – and confident. While proximity has deemed the Longhorns and Skiers rivals, the numbers tell an entirely different story. In the last five years, Basalt is 8-0-1 against Aspen. The Longhorns – outscoring the Skiers 34-4 over that span – have spoiled Aspen’s season finale each of the last two years.Since its 2-0 victory Sept. 20, Basalt has reeled off six consecutive wins. Even more telling, however, is that the Longhorns and goalie Jamie Wirkler have not allowed a goal since Sept. 17 against Colorado Rocky Mountain School.

“I would definitely say that the team is peaking, and now’s the time to take some steps forward and hit full stride,” said Streff, whose team beat Middle Park, 2-0, Saturday. “We know we need to be at our highest level of intensity.” Streff and the Longhorns are hoping a consistent, formidable offense and stingy defense will be a winning formula in this season’s playoff push. Defending 3A state champion Salida has ousted Basalt from the postseason each of the last two seasons. In both games, the Longhorns lost 1-0. The Spartans also beat Basalt, 2-0, Sept. 15. The Longhorns haven’t lost since.

“We’re playing good controlling soccer and getting a lot of good scoring opportunities,” Streff said. “We’ve been moving better and took a couple steps offensively [Saturday].”The Skiers, who have been busy building momentum during the season’s second half, are optimistic that rest will mean more than a conference win. Aspen is playing its strongest soccer of the season, having won seven of its last 10. The Skiers are outscoring opponents 33-14 over that stretch. Sutherland said he knows his team will have to be at full strength if they are to compete with Colorado Academy on Thursday.”If we had a chance to win the conference [today], then things would be different,” Sutherland said. “Denver teams are good, and everyone will need to be on and have a great game. Hopefully we’ll see [Basalt] later in the playoffs. That’d be great.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com

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