Aspen High hockey back in the state tournament as 8 seed, to face Liberty
The game is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. Thursday in Aspen
The playoffs were far from assured even going into the final weekend, but the Aspen High School hockey team did just enough to earn a spot in the postseason after a year away when the state brackets were announced Monday by the Colorado High School Activities Association.
“We are excited. It’s nice to be back in the playoffs,” second-year AHS coach Keith Howie said Monday evening. “The guys have really worked hard to earn it. We are in a tough league. A lot of talent in our league and it’s a testament to the guys playing as a team and kind of never giving up, which as a coach is really great to see.”
Aspen (7-10-1 overall) will be the No. 8 seed in the 10-team Class 4A tournament and will host No. 9 seed Liberty (9-9-1) at 5:45 p.m. Thursday at Lewis Ice Arena. The winner will face No. 1 seed Cheyenne Mountain in the state quarterfinals on Monday.
The Aspen-Liberty matchup is one of two “play-in games” in the state bracket, with No. 10 seed Crested Butte playing Thursday at No. 7 Rampart in the other, with that winner advancing to play No. 2 seed Battle Mountain next week. The other two quarterfinal games will be No. 4 Steamboat Springs vs. No. 5 Summit, and No. 3 Colorado Academy vs. No. 6 Kent Denver.
Aspen and Liberty have not played each other this season. The only Mountain League team the Lancers have played is Summit, losing 6-3 to the Tigers on Jan. 14 in Frisco. AHS split against Summit this winter, although the victory ultimately resulted in a forfeit loss by the Skiers due to roster eligibility issues at the time.
“They have played a lot of pretty much exclusively Denver teams and they haven’t played a lot of the mountain teams. So they are a little bit of an unknown,” Howie said of Liberty. “But like when we play other teams like Centaurus and when we played Cheyenne for the first time in a while this year, we are really going to come out hard and not take them for granted. We are going to come in like they are a top-tier team and play hard against them and try to play our game against them.”
Aspen missed the state playoffs last winter — as did almost everyone — when the pandemic limited the regular season and limited the postseason field to only four teams in 4A. Crested Butte beat Cheyenne Mountain and Battle Mountain beat Kent Denver in the semifinals, before Battle Mountain beat Crested Butte in the championship game.
The pandemic season was tough on the Skiers, finishing just 3-9 in Howie’s first year. AHS only finished 3-11-4 overall in the 2019-20 season, but did make the postseason, a 6-1 first-round loss to Ralston Valley when hockey was still just a single classification in the state. They split into separate 4A and 5A groupings ahead of the 2020-21 season.
This year’s Aspen team, however, has a little more grit to it, tallying the most wins since going 14-5-3 in the 2017-18 season.
“We are all super excited because we’ve seen glimpses of how good the team can be when we played some really tough teams,” Howie said. “I’ve seen how good this team can play in stretches. Now where we really have to work on it is the consistency just to keep up that good consistent play throughout the playoffs. This league, on any given night, anyone can beat anyone and anyone can lose to anyone. So you kind of throw the rankings out the window and it’s just whoever plays better on that given night can win the game and could really be state champions.”
Aspen has played the tough teams well in most cases this season, including a season-opening 4-3 loss to top-seeded Cheyenne Mountain on Dec. 6. Battle Mountain beat them pretty good the first time around, 9-1 on Jan. 7, but the Skiers only lost 6-4 in the Feb. 4 rematch, a game in which AHS led 4-3 late in the third period before letting it slip away.
Howie also pointed out Friday’s 3-2 win at Crested Butte — a game AHS might have needed to make the playoffs — as a testament to its toughness this season.
“We were down 2-0 after the second period and the guys came back, put together a great third period and we won the game,” Howie said. “We really came out and had a great third period. That’s that ‘never say die’ spirit that I love about our team. The guys have shown it a couple of times this year where they never give up and we get great results because of it.”
Aspen is led in goals this season with nine each from Brady Haisfield, Charles Rondeau and Ryan Rigney. Rigney has a slight edge in total points with 20, while George Morrison leads the team in assists with 13.
According to the Sports Engine stats, Liberty has scored 100 goals this season, to only 58 for Aspen. Three different Liberty players have scored at least 20 goals, led by 29 from Tristen Brooks.
Howie wasn’t yet sure on the mask rules for Thursday’s game, but Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate expired on Tuesday. He is hopeful this leads to a lively home crowd on Thursday inside the Aspen Recreation Center.
“We seem to rise to the challenge when we play better teams,” Howie said. “We are really hoping to get a good crowd in the building and really give support to our team because it means a lot to the players and us to get a really good crowd there. It fires up all the players to play in front of their friends.”
Aspen basketball to host Grand Valley on Tuesday
The Aspen High School boys basketball team will open its postseason on Tuesday night with a 6:30 p.m. home game against Grand Valley in the district quarterfinals. At 19-0 overall, the Skiers are the league’s No. 1 seed and the heavy favorite to win the tournament final come Saturday in Grand Junction.
For all of the district brackets, visit CHSAANow.com.
Grand Valley (8-12), the No. 8 seed, beat No. 9 North Fork on Monday night in the district play-in game, 51-39. The Cardinals lost to the Skiers in their only meeting this season, 65-39 on Jan. 29 in Aspen.
The winner on Tuesday will play in the district semifinals on Friday against either No. 4 Gunnison or No. 5 Coal Ridge. The semifinals, third-place game and final all will be played on neutral ground at Grand Junction Central High School.
Basalt boys basketball (7-12) is the district tournament’s No. 6 seed and will play Tuesday at No. 3 Moffat County (12-6) at 7 p.m. The BHS girls (7-12) also drew the No. 6 seed and will play Tuesday at 5 p.m. against No. 3 Moffat County (13-6), before the boys’ game in Craig.
Roaring Fork (5-14) is the No. 7 seed on the boys’ side and plays Tuesday night at No. 2 Delta (9-10). The Roaring Fork girls (4-15) are the No. 8 seed and play at No. 1 Delta (16-2) on Tuesday night.
The dance team traveled this past weekend to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, for the high school national championships, winning the intermediate varsity pom division on Sunday.