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Aspen boys cruising as hoops playoffs begin

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jim Ryan/Special to The Aspen TimesSkiers guard Nicky Fuller drives to the basket during a recent game against Cedaredge at Aspen High School.
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ASPEN – Steve Ketchum does not sense that his players are feeling the pressure.

“Trust me, they will soon,” the Aspen High boys basketball coach said Tuesday. “It’ll hit like a ton of bricks.”

Four days after routing Coal Ridge to wrap up a perfect regular season – the first in program history – the Skiers now begin their quest for a first 3A state title.

They host the Titans at 6 p.m. tonight in the first round of the district tournament. In other action, Basalt, winners of three of its last four, will travel to Gunnison.

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“I’m scared. I’m nervous. I’ve told the kids that for the last several weeks,” Ketchum said. “This is what they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives. I’ve been there enough to know what’s at stake.

“It’s that fear of the unknown. You just don’t know how they’ll play, how they’ll respond, how the ball is going to bounce.”

The ball has bounced Aspen’s way thus far. While they battled injury and illness nearly all season, the Skiers have rarely struggled on the court. They have won all but one game – the season opener against The Classical Academy – by double figures, and are outscoring opponents by an average of 21 points per game.

Aspen, second in the state poll, has won each of its last three games by more than 30 points. Included in that stretch was a 36-home win over Hotchkiss, which is 16-3 and was ranked in the state’s top 10 for an extended stretch earlier this season.

Saturday, flu-stricken Bridger Dawson scored 22 points on 11-of-13 shooting to propel the Skiers to a 76-44 win over Coal Ridge, which handed Aspen its only regular-season loss in 2008-2009.

“I’m proud of the kids being 19-0, but that can’t be the extent of our accomplishment,” Ketchum said.

“There are a couple of things that motivate me. One is chasing the dream of a state championship, the gold ball and watching your kids celebrate and be so proud about the ultimate accomplishment in the sport. If you flip the coin over, there’s the fear of failure and underachieving and not living up to expectations. You always want to be an overachiever.”

The Skiers have state-championship potential, largely because of a balanced attack Ketchum calls the best he has ever had. While seniors Andrew Papenfus and reigning Slope player of the year Matthew Holmes are the primary catalysts – averaging 13.7 and 10.9 points, respectively – three other players (Zack Babich, Nick Codd and Bridger Dawson) all score eight or more a contest.

“I have confidence in this group,” the coach added. “We have great leadership, great attitudes, great players. … They absolutely can do it. I feel like we’re getting close to that point where, no matter what happens in a game and no matter what anybody throws at us, we can handle it.”

There is still much to improve, Ketchum said. He pointed to poor footwork and boxing out on defense – “The way we’re playing right now, Faith Christian would score 100 on us,” he said.

He also said the Skiers are missing tons of shots around the rim, and not converting at a high level from most spots on the court.

“We have four, five or six guys capable of shooting it well,” he added. “Them being on at the same time is what it takes to win a championship.”

So how far off is Aspen from realizing its true potential?

“Two weeks away,” Ketchum said.

Skiers fans hope he’s right. Two weeks from Thursday, play begins at the Great Eight in Fort Collins. A trip there would be Aspen’s third straight; it lost in the semifinals in 2008, then was ousted in the state quarterfinals last March. In both cases, Faith Christian, currently the state’s top team, dealt the decisive blow.

There’s work to be done before a potential rematch, however. With a win tonight, Aspen will advance to the district semifinals Friday at Palisade High School.

With a win in Saturday’s district championship – which would be their third straight – the Skiers will host a four-team regional the following weekend. They have not lost at Aspen High School in three seasons.

Also, Aspen has won all five of its home regionals during Ketchum’s 11-plus seasons at the helm. In six regionals on the road, the Skiers never advanced to the Great Eight.

“There are at least 16 teams in regionals that could absolutely kick our butt, that are better than anyone we’ve seen this year. That’s why we need to hold ourselves to higher standards and keep pushing ourselves,” Ketchum said. “We’re trying to prepare them for the battles coming. We know what’s coming.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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