Aspen boys basketball fends off Roaring Fork in district semis, earns state berth

Nathan Deal
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

GRAND JUNCTION — When Taylor Akin drained a shot from half-court as the buzzer sounded to end the third quarter, he looked to the section of the crowd cheering on the Aspen High School boys basketball team, knowing he had just given his team a major boost going into the final quarter.

What he didn’t know at the time was that his shot would ultimately provide the final separation on the scoreboard, a separation the Skiers have waited six long years for.

“We do that a couple of times every week in practice, shooting those at the end of practice for fun,” Akin said. “Throughout the season, I’m usually long on them, but that one just happened to go in.”

The freshman scored 15 points as Aspen defeated Roaring Fork, 35-32, in the semifinal of the Western Slope League district tournament at Grand Junction Central High School on Friday, clinching their first Class 3A state tournament berth since 2014.

The Skiers (14-8) will face No. 1 seed Gunnison (19-2) in Saturday’s district title game at 2:30 p.m. The Cowboys beat No. 5 seed Delta in Friday’s late semifinal game, 60-53. Gunnison beat Aspen, 69-43, on Jan. 24 in their lone matchup of the regular season.

Regardless of the result, Aspen’s season will continue after a five-year playoff drought.

It’s the biggest accomplishment so far for fourth-year head coach Alex Schrempf.

“My predecessor, coach (Steve) Ketchum told me, ‘It’s going to take a minimum of four years before you see any progress,’” Schrempf said. “I didn’t want to believe that, but we kept taking steps through every season. It’s a slow and long process to develop a culture in a small town where kids are buying into basketball and willing to do the extra work. Over this past year, we had kids playing basketball year round instead of three months.

“The seniors have taken this on as an initiative for themselves. They want to lead by example.”

Two of those seniors, Jonathan Woodrow and Aidan Ledingham, did a bulk of the early work as the Skiers jumped out to a 10-5 lead after one quarter. However, both defenses settled in in the second quarter as Aspen led 12-9 at halftime.

In the third, Lucas Lee found space for back-to-back breakaway buckets, but every Aspen attack was met with Roaring Fork (6-15) resistance.

However, in the final quarter, every time Roaring Fork trimmed the deficit to one basket, the Skiers had a response, such as Akin’s 3-pointer from the left wing to make the score 33-28 with 1:10 left.

“As an offense, we didn’t really have much momentum, so I knew I had to hit some clutch buckets for us to keep us in the lead,” Akin said.

Ledingham’s layup with 7 seconds remaining made the score 35-32, but the Rams had one last shot. However, Jaime Vega’s shot from beyond the arc was off the mark.

Aspen’s standing for the postseason was shaky entering the game, as the Skiers were No. 28 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) standings, placing them firmly on the bubble without one of the state’s 14 district-earned spots.

Fortunately for the team’s five seniors, they earned the right to keep playing.

“We’re so excited,” said Woodrow, one of three Skiers with six points. “We’re going to keep going as long as we can and keep getting games. It’s something special. We haven’t had it since any of us have been here. It’s very, very exciting.”