Aspen boys basketball set for rematch with Roaring Fork with state spot on line

Not even four weeks have gone by since the teams last met, yet so much has changed. The Aspen High School boys basketball team has a swagger it hasn’t had in six years, while Roaring Fork hardly looks like the same team that started the season 1-11 before going on a bit of a hot streak as of late.

Both teams looked dead in the water not that long ago. Now, they will square off Friday afternoon in the Class 3A Western Slope League district semifinals with a spot in the 32-team state tournament on the line. Aspen hasn’t been to the state tournament since the 2013-14 season.

“We haven’t had that work ethic, and this year we finally started putting that into our game and it’s all changed,” AHS senior Aidan Ledingham said. “It’s so great to be part of a winning program again. Going to the playoffs is such a cool dream to have and we are so close to obtaining it.”

No. 7 seed Aspen (13-8) and No. 6 seed Roaring Fork (6-14) are scheduled to tipoff at 4:30 p.m. Friday in a game played at Grand Junction Central High School. No. 1 Gunnison (18-2) and No. 5 Delta (9-11) play at 7:30 p.m. in the other semifinal, with the winners scheduled to play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday for the district championship. The losers will play in Saturday’s 11:30 a.m. third-place game.

The league gets two automatic qualifiers into the state tournament, so both teams that make the district final are guaranteed to make regional play next week. All other teams will have to qualify based off RPI; Aspen is right on the bubble, while Roaring Fork likely has little to no chance to make state without the automatic berth.

“It’s so special. We haven’t had that in basketball since I’ve been here, at least,” AHS senior Jonathan Woodrow said of possibly making state. “We’ve had a losing season pretty much every year and it’s been rough. We are finally able to win and to have a chance to get into state is super exciting, especially my last year here. It couldn’t be a better time.”

Both teams are coming off big quarterfinal upsets. The Rams knocked off No. 3 Grand Valley on Tuesday, 38-36, after having a first-round bye. The Skiers rolled over No. 10 Cedaredge in the district play-in game, 70-35, before a wild 61-59 overtime win over No. 2 Coal Ridge on Tuesday in New Castle.

Trailing by six points in the fourth quarter, AHS rallied and it was a 3-pointer by sophomore Lucas Lee in the waning seconds that sent the game to overtime. Lee also had the OT put-back that proved to be the game-winner with about 20 seconds to go. Sophomore Braden Korpela and freshman Taylor Akin did a lot of the heavy lifting during the game.

“I don’t really know how to describe it. I couldn’t stop smiling the whole way home,” Lee said. “It was just a lot of fun because we were down so many points with little time left and we all just came together. Obviously I had a pretty big shot that sent us to overtime, but Braden and Taylor really carried us the whole way.”

Aspen is particularly happy to face Roaring Fork again, and the Rams might feel the same way. They played once this season, on Feb. 1 in Aspen, where the team from Carbondale pulled off a somewhat shocking 33-24 win. At the time it was only Roaring Fork’s third win of the season, but it also helped propel them to winning four out of five games at one point.

It was a damaging loss for the Skiers, the start of a four-game losing streak that seemed to have derailed their season. It may also have been a loss that helped wake them up just in time for a run to the state tournament.

“We went in there thinking we could just destroy them because of our record,” Ledingham said of the first game against the Rams. “We came out with low energy and we didn’t have any fight because we thought we were more talented and we could just win and that did not happen. They outplayed us and they made us play their ball.”

Aspen did play that game without Woodrow, a key piece of their puzzle, and Korpela credited the Rams’ 1-2-2 zone for the loss, a defense that did a good job of neutralizing the Skiers’ inside presence.

“We just couldn’t figure out a way to get through that zone. The players on the court didn’t make the right adjustments and it was hard to shred through that zone,” Korpela said. “We have grown from that game and haven’t let that bring us down too much.”

More than anything, the team’s growth has come from effort, not so much X’s and O’s. Fourth-year coach Alex Schrempf said he had to spend many halftimes earlier in the season trying to get the players motivated and energized, acting more as a counselor than a coach.

The Skiers haven’t had that issue over the past few games, including Tuesday’s dramatic and possibly season-saving win over the Titans.

“When we lost four in a row we weren’t handling adversity very well,” Korpela said. “But now we’ve come together as a team and I feel like our chemistry has gone up a lot. Earlier in the season when people made mistakes we would get mad at them or just put our head down and make it worse than it actually was. Now we are lifting each other up and just have that next play mentality.”