Super seniors take it to the next level |

Super seniors take it to the next level

Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times

For the past four years, Aspen and Basalt’s senior student athletes have performed in the classroom and on the valley’s pitches, ski slopes, hardwood, diamonds and tracks. Their accomplishments are striking.

The Longhorns girls soccer team continued its decade of dominance at the top of the 3A Western Slope. Aspen clinched its first state hockey title, then a boys eighth state skiing crown after an impressive performance on Vail’s slopes and cross-country trails. The Basalt girls made a run to the state basketball title game before Bishop Machebeuf derailed their title hopes. Skiers senior Noah Hoffman humbled the field at the state cross-country meet (and every other event in which he took part), and led Aspen to a second nordic national title in three years. Soccer forward Stephen Buzbee defied opposing defenses en route to a second consecutive conference player of the year award.

This year’s graduating classes have created memories that will endure and athletes whose feats and character will not soon be forgotten. For most, the past four years were the culmination of a sports career. For a select few, however, a new level of competition awaits.

The buzz began nearly seven years ago.

Aspen boys soccer coach Grant Sutherland still remembers the first time he saw Stephen Buzbee, then an 11-year-old, outrunning defenders all over the pitch during battles for loose balls. And the young player’s knack for finding the net? Uncanny.

“He’s always had that eye for the goal,” Sutherland said Wednesday. “He’s one of those kids who has so much talent, one of those kids who can always make things happen.”

After seven years ” an abundance of goals scored and countless vexed defenders ” Buzbee’s place among the 3A Western Slope’s best forwards is assured. His playing career, however, is far from over.

The soft-spoken senior will soon leave the familiar pitches of Aspen. He’ll travel to Spokane, Wash., and try his hand at competing on the Division I level. In August, Buzbee will vie for a spot on Gonzaga University’s soccer team. No players, not even upperclassmen, are assured a spot.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Buzbee said Wednesday. “Knowing that everyone has a shot at making the team and playing has given me an incentive to work harder.”

Buzbee is accustomed to the pressure that accompanies expectation. After a 2005 season in which he shared Slope MVP honors with Basalt’s Felipe Sanchez, Buzbee became the center of attention ” and the focus of opponents’ defensive schemes.

As if that could stop him. He led the league with 29 goals ” 10 more than in 2005 and the third highest total in all of 3A ” and was held scoreless just once in 18 games.

The season culminated with a trip to the state semifinals, a second consecutive player of the year award and a spot on the all-state first team for Buzbee. For his efforts on the pitch, his two all-league baseball selections and his role in helping Aspen win a state skiing title, Buzbee was named the school’s male athlete of the year ” an award he shared with Noah Hoffman.

“For four years he proved himself,” Sutherland said. “He was a marked man, but he always found a way to raise his level.”

Despite all the accolades ” and all the believers ” Buzbee was put in the difficult position of having to sell himself to college programs; such is reality for players who compete in the relative isolation of mountain towns. He hadn’t even considered playing college until after his sophomore season when he talked with Cyrus Eaton, a Basalt graduate, two-time Slope player of the year and current player at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

“He told me to start pretty soon, or else it would be too late,” Buzbee remembered.

Buzbee searched the Internet last summer to pinpoint certain Division I programs of interest. When he located a handful ” among them Santa Clara University, the University of Denver and Gonzaga ” he sent letters to coaches.

Gonzaga coaches expressed an immediate interest, and a few months ago invited Buzbee to Spokane. He was told that a coveted spot in the 30-man, 10-day tryout would be reserved for him.

The choice was clear.

“I chose Gonzaga because they gave me the best chance to play,” he said. “I have until early August to get bigger, faster and stronger. I want to be in the best shape of my life.”

Amy Lund had a list when it came to deciding on a college.

The standout distance runner from Basalt knew she wanted to compete at the next level, but didn’t want to go someplace where she’d be a long shot to make a team. At the same time, she didn’t want the transition to be too easy.

“I didn’t want to be the first runner,” said Lund, the daughter of Basalt cross-country and track coach Ron Lund. “I didn’t want to be the star.”

As for location, Lund said she was attracted to California’s warm weather and beaches. She also wanted a small school if she was going to be so far away from home, she said.

After doing some research on the Internet, Lund honed in on Concordia University in Irvine, Calif. ” a small campus with fewer than 3,000 students near Newport Beach. She and her father visited during the holiday break in December, and after speaking with the track and cross-country coach, Lund made her decision.

“Looking at their standings nationally and in their conference, and looking at what times their girls were running, it was going to be a really good fit,” said Lund, who finished fifth in the two-mile run earlier this month at the 3A state meet in Pueblo. “I was definitely going to be able to improve in my racing, and it would be a challenge to make the varsity team.”

Concordia is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body that oversees competition for some 350 small schools in the U.S.

Lund was also a guard on the Longhorns girls basketball team that lost in the 3A state final in March, but said she doesn’t plan to play hoops in college.

She’ll always cherish the memories of Basalt’s dream run to state, however, and the lessons she learned on the hardwood.

“I consider track and cross-country to be team sports as well, but I loved playing basketball,” Lund said. “It was just such an enjoyable experience for me to be on separate teams. … I had so much fun working together with my teammates and pushing each other to get better.”

Most high-schoolers would never consider turning down the chance to ski for national champion Dartmouth. Unquestionably, Noah Hoffman isn’t just any high school athlete.

After an unforgettable senior season in which he won three individual state titles and led the Aspen boys ski team to an eighth state championship, Hoffman’s next step is to try to earn a spot on the U.S. Ski Team’s nordic development squad.

Hoffman plans to head to Sun Valley, Idaho, after graduation to continue his training with the Sun Valley Ski Education Fund. The ski club offers a program for recent high school graduates who defer from college to focus solely on their training.

“A lot of their guys stay for a year to train after high school, and there’s also a lot of other guys who have already been in college and come back to train,” he said.

Dartmouth may still be in the cards, but Hoffman ” the top nordic skier in the country for his age group ” said heading to Sun Valley presented a clearer path to his ultimate goal of one day competing at the World Cup level.

“I sat down with my parents and my coaches to discuss it, and I decided it’s just really what I want to do,” Hoffman said. “I’ll re-evaluate each year, but in nordic it’s a very obvious pathway to the top level.”

In the fall, Hoffman won the 3A state cross-country title, and said he flirted with the possibility of pursuing running in the college ranks, albeit briefly.

“I won the 3A state title, but my times aren’t comparable to the 5A kids,” he said. “Those kids ran significantly faster times than I did. I guess I like skiing more, too.”

At the state ski championships at Vail, Hoffman easily defended his freestyle and classic titles ” wins that helped the Aspen boys snatch the state championship from rival Summit. Nearly a month later on the Soldier Hollow, Utah, course used for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Hoffman led Aspen’s nordic team to its second national title in three years.

Hoffman was recently named Aspen’s high school athlete of the year ” an honor he shared with three-sport star Stephen Buzbee (see related profile).

Hoffman is committed to competing at nordic skiing’s highest level, but he also has a solid backup plan. His acceptance to Dartmouth and subsequent deferral gives him the window of another year to change his mind.

“I eventually want to go to school,” he said, “but right now I’m really focused on my skiing.”

Ask Basalt’s Tucker Hinchliffe about his senior season behind the plate, and he’ll answer succinctly ” and predictably.

“It was OK,” the humble catcher told The Aspen Times in early May. “I don’t think of myself as that great of a player.”

Hinchliffe’s numbers in 2007 tell a different story. In 16 games, he had 22 hits, drove in 26 runs, stole eight bases and hit five home runs, two of which came against Gunnison on the final day of the regular season. He rebounded from a slow start to finish with a .511 average and nearly guided the Longhorns to a second consecutive state tournament appearance.

After a year spent trying in vain to run against him and impede him at the plate, 3A Western Slope coaches were all in agreement at a recent all-league selection meeting. They named Hinchliffe conference player of the year, an honor that secures him a spot on Colorado’s all-state first team.

Colleges from Arizona to Colorado took notice too.

“The reason he does so well is he never thinks he’s doing anything good enough,” Basalt coach Rick Ryan recently told The Aspen Times. “You can tell him he just hit a ball 400 feet, and he’ll tell you about his strikeout last Thursday. Those kinds of kids will always be successful.”

Hinchliffe has yet to decide between Pima Community College in Tucson and Mesa State College in Grand Junction. His ultimate goal: Transfer to a Division I program, preferably Arizona State. True to form, Hinchliffe called that prospect a “long shot.”

But don’t be so sure.

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