Both defenses face a challenge when Aspen football visits Salida in first round |

Both defenses face a challenge when Aspen football visits Salida in first round

Sophomore Tyler Ward steps back to pass as the Aspen High School football team practices earlier this season on the AHS turf.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Moving the ball is rarely a problem for either side, so when the Aspen High School football team travels to Salida for its first-round playoff game Saturday, both defenses can expect to be tested.

“They are a good football team, there is no question about it. They run the ball well. They have a threat throwing the ball,” AHS coach Travis Benson said. “It’s fourth quarter. That’s what these kids were playing for all year. It’s getting to the fourth quarter and being able to go out and play football.”

Aspen (6-3 overall) is the No. 12 seed in the 16-team Class 2A playoff bracket, while host Salida (8-1) is seeded No. 5. The winner will face either No. 4 La Junta or No. 13 Berthoud in the quarterfinals, with the highest remaining seed getting to host.

This makes it back-to-back playoff appearances for the Skiers, who last went to the postseason in 2013 prior to a season ago. After a three-year absence, Aspen returned to the playoffs last fall, also as the No. 12 seed, where it lost at No. 5 seed The Classical Academy in the first round, 36-24.

Salida went 7-3 a year ago, losing as the No. 11 seed to No. 6 seed Basalt in the first round of the state playoffs, 28-22. The 2017 season had been the Spartans’ best since going 8-3 in 2006.

“That’s always the best thing about playoffs, is extending the season as long as you can. Especially now during my senior year, every moment I get on the field is a godsend,” AHS senior lineman Dillon Jonsson said. “Every second of experience you can get on the field is helpful, especially in playoff games like this.”

Aspen is averaging 33.5 points per game this season, and twice has reached the 50-point mark in wins over Grand Valley and Moffat County. The Skiers difficulties on offense have come against two of the state’s best defenses in losses to Bayfield (20-8) and last week at Basalt (27-6). Bayfield and Basalt are the No. 1 and 3 seeds, respectively, in the 2A tournament.

The Skier offense revolves around sophomore quarterback Tyler Ward, who through nine games has thrown for 2,202 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. By comparison, last year’s standout quarterback, R.J. Peshek, tossed for 2,608 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 10 games for AHS.

Aspen has two significant receiving threats in senior Noah Hollander (751 yards, 10 TDs) and junior Max Ufkes (920 yards, 10 TDs). Junior running back Trey Fabrocini has rushed for 696 yards and eight touchdowns to lead the ground game.

“They throw the rock around pretty well — that’s their forte,” Salida first-year head coach Matt Luttrell told The Mountain Mail, Salida’s hometown newspaper. He later said a key to stopping Aspen will be to control the ball when the Spartans have possession. “That’s one way to slow down a fast-paced offense.”

Salida, which plays out of the 2A Intermountain League, lost for the first time last week when Bayfield — the defending 2A state champions — beat them 22-14 to secure the league title. The Spartans and Skiers have two other mutual opponents this season in Delta and Cedaredge, Salida narrowly beating the Panthers, 28-22, before rolling over the Bruins, 42-7.

Aspen had similar results, losing a 49-40 shootout to Delta in league play and beating Class 1A Cedaredge in a non-league matchup, 48-12.

Salida averages 34.3 points per game, having scored only seven more points than Aspen this season (309 to 302). There is a significant difference on defense, however, with AHS having allowed 189 points this season and Salida only 71 points. Only two of nine opponents have reached double-digit scoring against the Spartans, who have three shutouts.

“We’ve come out and we’ve gone to work the last three days and the kids have bounced back just fine,” Benson said of getting the Skiers’ electric spread offense back on track after struggling against Basalt last week, a game that cost Aspen the league title. “It’s what I’ve always said about the spread offense. One thing that is tough about it is that it’s explosive when it’s explosive and when you are off, you are just off. There is not a lot you can do about it.”

Salida’s offense features a 1,000-yard rusher in senior Vince Deleo (1,025 yards, 16 touchdowns), whose success could go a long way in keeping Ward and the AHS offense off the field.

While snow is forecast for the Aspen area on Saturday, which could impact Basalt’s home playoff game against No. 14 seed D’Evelyn, the weather is expected to remain dry in Salida. Both games kickoff at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“You always got to learn from the past, but at the same time you can’t dwell on it. It’s not something we can sit here thinking about moving on into Salida,” Jonsson said of moving on from the Basalt loss. “The thing that coach keeps saying is every team that is in the playoffs deserves to be there. And Salida and us definitely deserve to be there.”

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