Aspen football expects a challenge, shootout at The Classical Academy |

Aspen football expects a challenge, shootout at The Classical Academy

Aspen High senior quarterback R.J. Peshek leads the Skiers through early-practice drills Wednesday on the AHS turf. AHS plays at Classical Academy on Friday in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times |

Like the rest of his class, Aspen High School senior lineman Robbie Francis was in the eighth grade the last time the Skiers made the playoffs in football. The return trip has been a four-year process that included back-to-back 2-7 seasons in 2015 and 2016.

When people look back on the 2017 senior class, Francis wants it to be remembered for being the first to get AHS back to the postseason. A tradition he expects the following generations to carry on.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for us to start something that should continue for a long time into the future,” Francis said. “It’s pretty special. It’s something we’ve never experienced in my four years here and something that is not experienced a lot in Aspen in general. We put a lot of work in and it’s exciting.”

The Skiers will play in their first playoff game since 2013 at 7 p.m. Friday when they travel to Colorado Springs to face The Classical Academy in the first round of the Class 2A state playoffs. Aspen is the 16-team tournament’s No. 12 seed, while the Titans (8-1 overall) are seeded No. 5. The winner will face either La Junta or Pagosa Springs in the second round.

The postseason berth comes after Aspen’s surprising turnaround season in which it went 8-1 overall, led by its prolific offense and second-year head coach Karson Pike. The lone loss came on homecoming against Basalt (8-1), the 2A Western Slope League champion and tournament’s No. 6 seed. BHS will host No. 11 seed Salida at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

“Coach Pike has done a great job there in Year 2, establishing the culture there and having the kids buy in,” TCA coach Justin Rich said. “He’s doing something really good. It’s really neat when a coach can do that.”

The last time Aspen made the playoffs it was seeded No. 13 and lost 49-14 to No. 4 seed Faith Christian in the first round. That 2013 season was the final under coach Mike Sirko, who led AHS to a string of playoff appearances.

The last time Aspen won a playoff game was in 2010 under Sirko, a 21-14 win over Platte Valley in the first round. AHS then lost 21-14 to Kent Denver in the second round.

“It’s been a long journey for us,” Aspen senior lineman Finn Allen said. “Finally, in our senior year, to have it is an amazing and incredible opportunity for us.”

The Opponent

Rich is in his first season as the head coach at The Classical Academy, although he’s been on staff for three years. He took over for David Bervig, who was 40-17 in his five seasons, which included four trips to the playoffs. Rich, from North Park, was the head coach at Palmer in 2012 and 2013, going 1-9 each season, and was on the staff with CSU-Pueblo when it won the Division II national championship in 2014.

“When they wanted to change head coaches, I sort of drew the short straw. So we didn’t really have to change much,” Rich said. “We’ve had a good culture here and been doing what we do on both sides of the ball for a while and they have bought in.”

Rich said he’s still the “newcomer” on the TCA staff. Many of the assistants have been with the program for years, part of the reason the Titans have been so consistent from season to season.

Since 2008, TCA has finished with less than seven wins only twice, going 2-8 in 2011 and 4-6 in 2014. The team went 10-3 in 2013, losing to eventual 3A state champion Coronado by a point in the semifinals. The Titans finished 9-2 in 2016, earning a No. 3 seed in the playoffs. They lost 27-24 in overtime to No. 6 seed Kent Denver in the second round. Kent Denver eventually lost 17-10 to La Junta in the state championship game.

“It’s been a great season watching these seniors lead,” Rich said of the 2017 squad. “As soon as you get to the playoffs, you are going to get everybody’s best shot. It’s 16 teams and everybody is going to do everything they can to not go home. We are lucky to be in a program where the kids from Day 1 were working for and expecting to get to the playoffs.”

Classical Academy’s only loss this season came in Game 5, a 14-11 defeat to defending state champ La Junta, which is 8-1 and the No. 4 seed in this year’s tournament. TCA is a combined 3-1 against this year’s 2A playoff teams, with wins over No. 9 seed Sterling, No. 11 Salida and No. 16 D’Evelyn.

“Obviously they have kids that have been training in the weight room quite a bit, year round, and really know football. It’s going to be a challenge,” Pike said. “We are going to have to go down there and play our best game to be able to walk away with a win, but hats off to those guys. They are doing things the right way.”

The Offense

Pike believes Friday’s game could be an offensive showdown, which comes down to the final possessions. While TCA likes to run outside the tackles more than Aspen, there are a lot of similarities between the two offenses.

“We were talking (Tuesday) night at practice trying to figure out what wrinkles we might get that we haven’t even imagined from Aspen,” Rich said. “You’ll see a lot of the stuff Aspen does, we do. But we sneak in a tight end every now and then. As coach Pike watches a lot of film, he’ll immediately pick up what we are trying to do.”

Senior quarterback Cade Bethany makes the TCA offense move. He’s passed for 1,316 yards this season with 12 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He’s rushed for 381 yards and four more touchdowns.

Senior tailback Brayden Luft does most of the work on the ground. He leads the Titans with 908 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. His season high in rushing came in the regular season finale, when he rushed for 202 yards in a 56-12 win over Manitou Springs.

TCA averages around 35 points per game.

“They are a little bigger, but we’ve played a bunch of big teams so far and everything has turned out pretty well for us,” Francis said. “We know what they are going to run, they know what we are going to run. It’s just about who is going to play better when it comes Friday night.”

Aspen is led by senior quarterback R.J. Peshek. The workhorse has passed for 2,242 yards — second most in Class 2A — and 28 touchdowns this season with only six interceptions. Not only that, but he leads the Skiers with 697 yards rushing and 14 more scores on the ground.

Junior receiver Noah Hollander is Peshek’s main target, hauling in a 2A-leading 1,056 yards through the air with 14 touchdown catches.

AHS averages 46 points per game, highlighted by the 80 points it scored in its season-opening win over Middle Park.

“There are about four or five different players you have to worry about offensively,” Rich said of the Aspen offense. “For us, it’s the same thing as always. We want to try and get something going on the ground. In the playoffs I really think it’s about getting defensive stops and being able to run the ball a little bit. Whoever is able to do that will be in good shape.”

The Road

Aspen is 5-0 on the road this season while TCA is 4-0 at home. After hosting Middle Park in its season opener, AHS played four straight on the road earlier this season, with a bye week in the middle of it.

So, playing on the road Friday won’t be an odd feeling for the Skiers.

This also will be Aspen’s second overnight trip of the season, the other being its second game at Arvada, a 44-0 win.

“This is not new to us, which I really like,” Pike said. “We know how to do a walkthrough when we are away. We know how to handle ourselves in the hotel and all those sorts of things, so that certainly helps take some of the tension out of the situation.”

The Experience

Unlike Classical Academy, Aspen has no playoff experience. While having been there helps, sometimes ignorance can be bliss. The Skiers are hoping for the latter when it faces the Titans.

“We have to be able to overcome our excitement and keep ourselves calm to begin with. Other than that, the environment is so exciting that all of us will be super excited to go out there and play a game,” Allen said. “They are nothing to sleep on, that’s for sure. I think if we execute we have a good chance to go out there and roll over them on their home field.”