Aspen outlasts Pagosa Springs, advances to state quarterfinals
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – The show goes on for Aspen football.
Tailback Nicky Ufkes rushed for 329 yards and scored four touchdowns for the ninth-seeded Skiers, who overcame the elements, a deficit that ballooned to as much as 10 and a strong performance from Pirates quarterback Taylor Shaffer in Saturday’s 2A state playoffs first-round game in Pagosa Springs. A pivotal special teams play in the waning minutes helped Aspen clinch a dramatic 46-41 victory and a berth in the quarterfinals.
With the win – believed to be the program’s first in postseason play – the Skiers (9-2) will host top-seeded Faith Christian (11-0), an easy winner over Bayfield in the first round, on Saturday afternoon. (Should they advance, lower-seeded teams that travel in the first round garner home games in the second.)
“Oh baby! The Skiers are going to the elite eight,” Aspen coach Mike Sirko exclaimed Saturday afternoon. “For the first time, I saw an Aspen team really have to deal with some incredible adversity, with the weather and going six hours away. This was such a big game for us. The kids really gutted it out when they got behind. … I’m couldn’t be more proud.”
Aspen, which played from behind for much of the game and trailed 29-27 at halftime, jumped out to an 11-point advantage late in the fourth quarter after Ufkes capped off a nearly five-minute drive with a 13-yard touchdown scamper.
On the ensuing possession, Shaffer, 2A’s passing yards leader, orchestrated a long scoring drive to trim the deficit to five. The Pirates came up short on an attempted two-point conversion.
Pagosa Springs (7-4), champions of the Mountain League and a state quarterfinalist in 2008, then attempted an onside kick. Skiers quarterback Anderson Cole alertly pounced on the ball.
Aspen failed to run out the clock, however, and was forced to punt with about 90 seconds to play.
“For those guys, one minute is a lot of time,” Sirko said. “I was more nervous for our defensive coaches … They were a headache for our defense.”
Skiers defensive back Quinn Morehead made sure Shaffer never touched the ball again. The sophomore sprinted down field and drilled Pirates return man Tyson Ross, jarring the ball loose. Aspen’s Dane Christensen came away with possession.
“[Ross] was moving forward to catch the ball and, on his first step, they made contact with him, and the ball popped out,” Pagosa Springs coach Sean O’Donnell said Sunday. “It’s unfortunate, but I certainly don’t blame him. We had 1 minute, 20 seconds left and one timeout and were needing a touchdown. He was trying to make something happen. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Morehead made another pivotal play in the fourth, shortly after Aspen took the lead. Facing a third and long, Shaffer made his lone mistake of the game. His pass attempt came up short, and Morehead picked it off, setting up the Skiers’ final scoring drive.
“The kids fought back, they kept fighting back,” Sirko said. “Once we got ahead, we hung on.”
An Aspen defense that allowed no points in the regular season’s final two games struggled to slow the Pirates all afternoon. Shaffer completed 23 of 33 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns and paced Pagosa Springs on the ground, rushing for 54 yards and one score.
Aspen countered with a standout of their own. On a day when intermittent snow showers, wind gusts and cold temperatures made passing difficult, the Skiers were content to hand off to workhorse back Ufkes.
They were rewarded.
The junior, who eclipsed the 2,000-yard rushing mark in Nov. 6’s regular-season finale against Coal Ridge, rushed 36 times Saturday and piled up more than 300 yards on the ground for the third time this season.
“With 41 points, I like my chances. But I knew that we’d have a hard time stopping their run,” O’Donnell said. “We haven’t been very good at stopping the run all year. We’ve worked really hard on it, but we couldn’t get over the hump. … Nicky was tough, their fullback was tough, and they used the quarterback at the right times.”
While he completed just three passes for 25 yards, Cole rushed for 58 yards and three touchdowns.
“They were just really efficient,” O’Donnell added. “We knew it would come down to us having to put points on the board and have some help with turnovers and things like that.”
In last year’s playoffs loss to Florence, Cole was picked off three times in the first 19 minutes and four times total. Saturday, Aspen committed just one turnover – an Ufkes fumble in the third quarter that led to a Pirates touchdown.
The Skiers’ defense atoned for that gaffe when they picked off Shaffer, who had thrown just three interceptions in his previous 10 games.
“He was as good as we thought he was – and then some,” Sirko said. “Once we started putting some pressure on him in the second half, we were able to at least cut down some of [their production].
“It was an effort to be proud of. … We always tell the kids to leave their hearts on the field, and they did that.”
Aspen is hoping for an encore Saturday against the state’s top team. Faith Christian, champion of the Flatirons Conference, jumped out to a 27-0 halftime lead and cruised to a 34-7 win in the first round against No. 16 Bayfield.
Bayfield topped Pagosa Springs, 21-20, on Nov. 6.
“We’re playing the best team in the state, but … so what,” Sirko said. “It’s a home game, and we’re excited. … We’ll enjoy this win for a day or two, then get back to work.”
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