Coach puts new twist on old rivalry |

Coach puts new twist on old rivalry

Jon Maletz
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

While Basalt coach Rick Ryan was waiting for practice to commence Monday, Longhorns junior Tucker Hinchcliffe approached him.Hinchcliffe asked Ryan if he was still nervous about facing Aspen for the first time from the opposing dugout. When Ryan answered yes, Hinchcliffe laughed.”I’m nervous because it’s going to be so foreign to me,” Ryan said. “To see the other team with ‘Aspen’ on their jerseys is going to be weird. I’m comfortable here in Basalt now, but when I see that Aspen hat, things are gonna be different.”Ryan said he tried to downplay the significance of facing Aspen for the first time since the Skiers didn’t retain him as head coach last year. He did not deliver any Knute Rockne speeches to close out practice. This is an important league game, he told his players. It’s all about how we play, not who we play. The veteran coach admitted, however, his players are well aware of the circumstances and emotions surrounding today’s contest.While he has never met Ryan, 25-year-old Aspen coach Matt Lilleberg followed his lead during practice Tuesday in El Jebel. “We’re not playing Rick Ryan, we’re playing Basalt. I’d rather not make it an issue,” Lilleberg said. “The kids have been talking about this game since before the season began, but I’ve been trying to keep things under control. “We’re 1-2 in the league, and this is a big game for us. I think these kids are mature enough to see the bigger picture instead of see this as a personal grudge match.”Aspen (2-6, 1-2) looked tense during its fielding drills Tuesday. Lilleberg halted practice after a string of botched grounders and had his infielders take two laps around the bases. When a right fielder let a ball slip by and roll all the way to the wall, Lilleberg replaced the player.There were missed cut-off men, and an errant outfield throw sailed into the visiting dugout. An unexpected throw struck junior second baseman Nicky Anastas in the nose. Lilleberg scowled as he stood alone on the mound. Anastas reasoned the Skiers were having an off day, perhaps the result of dropping two weekend games to Gunnison. He would not, however, discount the notion that players were feeling pressure before the big game.”We wanna show our former coach that we’re playing well,” Anastas said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of high-strung emotions. There are kids who liked Rick and those who didn’t get along with him as well. It’s going to be an emotional game.”Ryan’s new role will renew the energy and excitement, Aspen junior Jeff LaGrua said. LaGrua and the rest of the Skiers hope the results stay the same, however.The Skiers have beaten Basalt (1-4, 0-4) 16 of the last 18 times, said Ryan, who recently combed through his old scorebooks. In talking with his players, Ryan also discovered that the rivalry was primarily one-sided.”I used to tell my players that if you don’t do anything else, beat Basalt. When I came here and started telling my guys to beat Aspen, they told me their rival is Roaring Fork,” Ryan said. “No wonder [Basalt] never showed up. They didn’t care as much as we did. I think that now, because of my situation, things will change. Aspen has to be on the radar.”Adding to the intrigue of the matchup is both teams’ weekend skids. Basalt led Olathe – a top-10 3A team – by three heading into the six inning of game one on the strength of Darren Duroux’s arm, but the bullpen squandered the lead and Basalt fell, 7-5. The Longhorns lost the second game, 12-0. Basalt trailed by five in the sixth but surrendered a grand slam and a three-run home run in succession.Basalt will send Duroux to the hill today.LaGrua will make his third start of the season for Aspen. He was solid in a loss to Machebeuf on March 18 and dominated Cedaredge in a 6-1 win on April 5, Lilleberg said. “We don’t have as many wins as I’d like to have, but we’ve improved almost every game,’ Lilleberg said. “Everyone has an image of what Aspen is, and we’re ready to put together a winning season. [Today] is a good opportunity to show the world.”Ryan taught his Aspen players to hate purple, and he said in February that he was happy Basalt was switching to black uniforms. He said he was planning on leaving his purple pullover in the dugout today, even thought the forecast calls for rain and low temperatures.While he is anxious about the prospect of coaching against players he grew to respect, Ryan also sees today’s game as an opportunity to reverse tradition and develop a new attitude.”Basalt has had good players, but they’ve lost for so many years. We need to get over that hill,” he said. “We need a win like this.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is

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