Working to win
October 23, 2007
On a sunny Tuesday in March. In a non-descript lecture hall half-filled with anxious young men. Smack in the middle of a small-town controversy that has simmered for weeks.That’s where this improbable tale starts. That’s where the man at the center of the fire, the one with the closely-cropped silver goatee, thick neck and the brew-kettle build, walks into the lecture hall, demands the attention of those seated, then promises that everything from that day forward will be different. Better. A journey unlike anything any of those seated have experienced. It’s where, nearly six months away from the first Friday night kickoff, Mike Sirko sets the tone for a magical high school football season that no one saw coming … except maybe himself.See, here’s the thing with Cinderella stories: Most people tend to breeze through the opening chapters. They’d rather pick up somewhere in the middle, once the intrigue starts to build and the magic takes hold, instead of going back to see the spell being cast.To truly understand the Aspen Skiers and their remarkable transformation, however, it’s imperative to begin in that lecture hall. To take in, up close, a struggling football team’s players at their stepsister ugliest – confused, conflicted and flat-out sick of losing. And to behold the spark that promises to lead all those who see it out of the dark – the awakening where confusion becomes collaboration and a team begins to believe in the vision of a man known for making the impossible seem attainable.There’s no getting around it: The reason they are here in this hall is because they don’t know how to win. They’re part of a losing legacy – just eight wins and 37 losses in the five years since varsity football returned to the high school in 2002. And the majority of those losses have been lopsided blowouts.
This losing legacy is why Travis Benson, the former AHS player coach who they loved, felt forced out in December to make way for this stranger standing before them. It’s the reason for all the angry letters in the paper and all the hand-wringing in the community.The truth is, if they’d done better, won more games, they wouldn’t be here in this room, the strands of a rope being stretched in a town tug-of-war. The debate is one that continues outside those doors: What’s the most important lesson when it comes to high school sports? Is winning really all that matters? And honestly, is that even possible? Can anyone – aside from the ghost of Vince Lombardi, maybe – really bring to life a winning football team in Aspen?This new coach, though, doesn’t talk about winning. Even though it’s what he has proved he can do during 31 years patrolling the sidelines of high school football fields. Even though it’s the one thing on everyone’s minds. He doesn’t want to talk about the controversy that’s delivered him here, either. He brings it up once, tells his new charges they’ll all have to move past it together if they intend to be successful, and then he begins to describe his plan.He states flatly that he is not a miracle worker, and that nothing is going to happen overnight. He talks about work ethic, building a foundation in the offseason, not listening to those outside the program who want this experiment to fail and, above all, having “one heartbeat.” There is no bold proclamation that he will deliver them glory. No promise of the playoffs. Only a simple pact, which he offers up modestly:If those seated promise to work with him and give him their all, then he promises they won’t be disappointed.It’s a bold pitch but, to a man, all those seated eat it up. After feeling left out of decisions that directly affected them, of just wanting a say, this man offers just that: a chance to control their destiny. An opportunity to be successful.Outside the lecture hall, there’s still plenty of nonbelievers, but inside, the wide-eyed high schoolers impressed by the booming voice and the assured confidence of their new coach have just signed on for the most rewarding journey of their young lives … even if they don’t know it yet. It doesn’t take much convincing; The magician knows how to work a crowd. Other crucial characters will join along the way, once they see the magic up close, but really it starts here, behind closed doors, six months before the first kickoff.
Just like in the lecture hall, it’s away from peering eyes where the seismic shift really takes place. To the casual observer, the sea change happens on that first Friday under the lights in late August when the 2A Skiers hang 40 points on 3A Battle Mountain in front of a stunned home crowd. Just a year earlier, against the same team, Aspen found itself on the end of a 35-2 drubbing.But really, the winning takes root in the middle of the long winter, in the early morning hours before school, with players straining and pushing one another in the weight room. Day after day, those who believe in the new head coach’s vision show up and pour out their sweat under his watchful eye, growing stronger individually and unbreakable as a group.The momentum carries through the spring and into June when nearly 30 players begin practicing in pads on their sparkling year-old field with no one watching. The coach and his new assistants – one of them the coach’s son, another his son-in-law – keep it simple and offer unwavering encouragement, always promising that the seeds planted now will bear fruit when it matters most.The dedicated few continue to push on in the weight room and on the field, running sprints through July and early August, attracting more to the ranks as the weeks go by. By the time two-a-days roll around at summer’s end, some 50 players have shown up to play football – among them a handful of seniors going out for the team for the first time, including 6-foot-6 all-state basketball star Cory Parker.Yet still, despite what those closest to the new coach can see plainly, despite the wave they can see forming, no one will believe them when they say this season will be different. Before the first game, the declarations from Aspen players in the newspaper about the goal of making the playoffs are greeted with laughs by players and coaches from opposing teams. Even peers – siblings, classmates, teachers – don’t believe.And, if that isn’t enough to deflate dreams, there are plenty more in the community who would love nothing more than to see the Skiers come apart. To watch this controversial coaching change blow up in the faces of those who engineered it – namely the coach’s wife, Aspen School District Superintendent Diana Sirko, who remained resolute despite all the cries of nepotism and questionable ethics.It’s a lot of heat to withstand while practicing under the August sun, but if anyone can stand it, the players learn, it’s their unwavering coach. The big bangThere is an explosion, but when it arrives, it’s not the one that everyone outside the team expected.
The night the Skiers and their new coach take the field for the first time, in front of rows of eyes and under the glow of the bright lights, they serve up something so shocking that even the most ardent critics have to take notice.Tiny 2A Aspen whooping up on a 3A school? Playing the second-stringers late in the second half because the game has gotten so out of hand? Aspen 40, Battle Mountain 20?It’s a super stunner, for sure – one that even has the Skiers themselves surprised at just how far they’ve come in a little more than half a year. But is it a fluke?A week later, the critics are reassured when coach Sirko and the Skiers fall back to earth, losing on the road by two touchdowns to Grand Valley, a smaller nonconference foe.Those on the inside, however, know the real truth: That the fluke wasn’t the score of that first game. Even in defeat, there is no wavering, no doubting which direction the team is headed.Said the team’s unquestioned leader, senior running back Tucker Eason: “We realized, ‘Hey, either we can feel like Battle Mountain or feel like Grand Valley again. We can feel how bad it is to lose, or we can feel like champs again.’ We knew what we wanted right then, and we knew what we had to do to get it. We had to take what we really wanted, and once we started taking it from people, we started to see that we can do this.”That hardened belief shows up unannounced on a crisp autumn night in mid-September, in front of a massive homecoming crowd – certainly the largest in recent memory – when the Skiers take a measure of revenge from their staunchest rivals, the Basalt Longhorns.In a game Aspen found every which way to lose in previous years, Eason grinds out 125 yards and the Skiers come up with a huge fourth-quarter stop for a signature 14-6 win. The victory propels a throng of red-and-black clad fans onto the field afterward.In any other year, that win would make the season. Aspen could lose the rest and still have plenty to brag about in the upper valley.But, for this team and this coach, there has to be more after all they’ve put themselves through. The feeling after two huge wins only rouses the appetite for more – more proving the nonbelievers flat wrong, more frenzied post-game celebrations, more, more, more.There’s a 46-6 thumping of Cedaredge to match Aspen’s win total from the previous year, then a surprising 21-7 win over Roaring Fork in Carbondale – a team Aspen hasn’t beaten since its return to varsity play in 2002.And then, the atom bomb of victories: A last-minute, come-from-behind win on a field goal over No. 4 Olathe – the class of the 2A Western Slope – that sends shock waves throughout the league and as far as Denver. Five wins, one loss.Aspen in the Rocky Mountain News top 10? In the playoff hunt? The players find it hard to believe themselves, although, now that they’ve come this far, there’s no reason not to believe in more, to see just how far they can ride out this waking dream.”We knew that the coach had an outstanding reputation,” said Parker, the Division I hoops prospect who signed up for pads after getting stopped by Sirko in the school’s halls on a weekly basis last spring. “We knew that something was going to be turned around. We just didn’t know that it was going to happen so quickly.””It is a surprise, but once you see how hard we’re working and how much time we’ve put in, we’ve paid the price for it,” said senior tight end Brian Westerlind. “We love proving people wrong. Even kids at our own school now still don’t believe. They tell us they come out to the games expecting us to lose, and end up storming the field after every game.” Suddenly, a team accustomed to six-touchdown losses, to getting hammered week in and week out, is on the opposite end of it all and playing front-runner. Suddenly, after a 49-21 win over Hotchkiss to go to 6-1 Aspen goes to Gunnison on Oct. 19 to play for it all: a league title, its first playoff berth since 1974, a possible top-five state ranking.
OK, so this particular Cinderella story has a detour. There’s nothing magical about the Skiers last Friday night in Gunnison, when the undefeated Cowboys roll to a 41-12 win.The loss leaves upstart Aspen’s league title hopes in doubt heading into Friday night’s home finale against 1-7 Coal Ridge. (See the Saturday, Oct. 27 Aspen Times for results).The clock has seemingly struck midnight. Or not.Last Tuesday at practice, four days after the Gunnison game, it’s as if the loss never happened. The Skiers know that one more win will put them in the playoffs – league title or not – and there is no time to dwell on the one league game that got away.Back in August, the playoffs were a wild dream. Now they are right there for the taking.And Sirko and his coaches, just like they have all season, refuse to let the Skiers look back, to search for any sort of self-doubt among it all.And maybe that’s the greatest secret to all this success, the real truth behind all the magic. Certainly, if they wanted to, the Skiers could come up with plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t even be anywhere near where they are.
To consider:• Aspen’s offensive line averages just more than 170 pounds, and is anchored by a senior center, Ryan Games, who hadn’t played football before this season. • The team’s starting quarterback, Anderson Cole, is a sophomore who never took a varsity snap before this season.• The Skiers’ offensive playbook consists of a mere 10 running plays – nearly all of them to Eason – and has about the same number of passing plays.”About four or five to the right and four or five to the left for each,” Sirko said with a laugh.It’s even more basic on defense. The Skiers run one base formation and only a handful of blitzes.On paper, Aspen should be 2-6, not 6-2 and banging on the playoff door.So what’s what secret? Where’s the magic lie? Maybe it’s not magic at all. Maybe it’s just as simple as this: A resolute coach convincing his players to strive for the unthinkable, the unattainable, telling them how to accomplish it, then marveling to himself on the inside when they, in fact, make good on his prophecies.Maybe not. When asked point-blank, the sorcerer himself remains coy about how he’s conjured a winner seemingly out of thin air. He’s done it before so many times – drastic turnarounds at six different schools – yet the secret is elusive when he speaks to the science of building a winner.
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There are clichés such as “keeping it simple,” “developing a fire,” building “brick by brick,” and “playing a full 48 minutes and letting the cards fall where they may,” but they don’t fully capture what has taken place.All the coach can say is that this experience, this turnaround, has been the most rewarding of his whole career – simply because it’s likely the last, and because so many people believed it would never happen.”I really believe this is where I need to be,” said the coach, when asked about his first year in Aspen. “I really do. Even with all this controversy, this is where I needed to be for these kids. I needed to be here. There was something saying I should be here.”Personally, it’s as good as I’ve ever had, and it might even be more special because it’s probably the last one. It’s nice to know, at least to feel inside, that you can still relate to kids because that’s what this is all about. You don’t coach as long as I have if you don’t put the kids No. 1. The most exciting thing for me, and it’s worth more than any amount of dollars you can put on it, is to see these kids and these coaches just grinning after a football game that we’ve won and everyone shaking their heads, being like, ‘Can you believe this? We won.'”Believe it, indeed.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.