Aspen’s man of the year |

Aspen’s man of the year

Nate Peterson
Aspen soccer coach Junior Sutherland shares a laugh with senior goalie Andy Conarroe after the Skiers' quarterfinal win over Colorado Springs Christian. (Paul Conrad/Aspen Times)

To say Junior Sutherland is modest would be an understatement: For the past seven seasons, Aspen’s varsity soccer coach has avoided acclaim like the flu.But Sutherland couldn’t duck this: On Thursday, the Rocky Mountain News named him the 3A All-State coach of the year for guiding the Skiers to within one game of the boys state finals. “It’s quite an honor,” Sutherland said via cell phone while on vacation in San Francisco. “I definitely didn’t expect it. It’s pretty wild.”Surprising, to say the least. Typically, the two Denver papers mete out such honors to coaches who lead their teams to a state title. Western Slope coaches and players also widely acknowledge a Front Range bias when it comes to playoff seedings and all-state selections.Throw in the fact that Sutherland – when not yelling on the sidelines – is a quiet, gruff fellow from Scotland who is the last to seek out attention, and, well, his reaction to the honor makes sense.”If anything, it’s because of the kids,” Sutherland said. “They’re the ones who made it happen. They’re the ones who worked so hard and played such beautiful football.”Aspen senior forward Stephen Buzbee, the only Skiers player to make the all-state team, said Sutherland’s selection underlines what Aspen players and parents have known since 2000.

“He’s an amazing coach,” Buzbee said. “I definitely think he more than deserves it. For the last few years, he’s completely devoted himself to this team. I don’t think there’s any question, we wouldn’t have gotten as close to where we went without him.”It’s that commitment to his players that led Sutherland to announce before this season that that he wouldn’t be returning to the sidelines in 2007.A successful restaurateur who is a partial owner of Mezzaluna, as well as another restaurant in Vail, Sutherland said his coaching duties were cutting too much into his business.A month after the Skiers (15-3) fell to Denver Christian in Englewood to end their season, Sutherland said he is having second thoughts. Returning players and their parents have urged him to reconsider, but possibly more telling is that Sutherland said his passion for soccer – despite the huge time commitment – hasn’t waned.”It’s still up in the air,” Sutherland said. “When you step back and you think it’s over, that’s when you realize how hard it is to walk away from. If you’ve lost the passion, then it’s not hard to. But I still enjoy it. I still have the passion. “I still think about it every day.”Buzbee finished the season with 29 goals, good for third-best in 3A and an MVP award in the 3A Western Slope. He has narrowed down his choices of where to take his talents next to Bucknell, the University of Denver, Gonzaga and the University of California at Santa Clara – all Division I programs.Last season, Buzbee was the Slope’s co-MVP with Basalt’s Felipe Sanchez, and was an honorable mention all-state selection.

Basalt’s Ryan Zubizarreta – who led the Longhorns (12-4) with 14 goals and 13 assists – followed Sanchez onto the all-state team, joining Buzbee as the only other selection from the Western Slope.Aspen’s Nicky Anastas and Basalt’s Trevor Brown both earned honorable mentions. The rest of the all-state team reads like the all-private-school team – evidence of the divide between the state’s private and public schools when it comes to athletics.Aspen was the only public school to make it into 3A’s final four, joining Metro League foes Faith Christian, Denver Christian and Colorado Academy. The last public school to win a 3A state title was Salida in 2003; Salida’s Tyler Keidel was also the only other player from a public school to make this year’s all-state team with Buzbee and Zubizarreta.Faith Christian also won this year’s 3A state football title.Sutherland and Buzbee both said the current system doesn’t create an equal playing field. Sutherland advocated divisions for private and public schools for the state playoffs, then a final between the two schools to win their division. Buzbee noted that private schools like Faith Christian attract the best athletes within a 50-mile radius.Hypothetically, if Aspen and Basalt – less than 20 miles apart – were to join forces, the team would unstoppable, Buzbee said. Even with the advantage private schools have, Aspen was just as talented as any team in the state, he said.

Buzbee’s freak injury in practice three days before the game against Denver Christian, as well as the suspension of senior Eric Sciaronne for a red card in the quarterfinal, hurt the Skiers’ chances of winning a state title. Buzbee, on a bad ankle, was without his trademark burst of speed against the Crusaders, while Sciaronne watched from the sidelines.”I definitely think it was an accomplishment for us to make it,” Buzbee said. “[The private schools] definitely have the power to get the best kids to come to their schools … Faith Christian is loaded with athletes, where at a public school you really get stuck with the kids who go there.”Sutherland said the defeat only serves as motivation to come back to the sidelines and go after an elusive state title. He took the Skiers to the state championship game in 2000 and hasn’t been back since.More than that, though, Sutherland is considering coaching next year because of the daily rewards that not everybody gets to see.”When you’re around kids and you see the smiles on their faces, it makes everything worthwhile,” he said. “Those moments after those two [playoff] games in Aspen this year, you can’t put any price on that. Money is not why you do it. You do it for those smiles.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.

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