Denver West up first for Aspen basketball at regionals in latest championship quest

Skiers host the Cowboys at 7 p.m. Friday in first round

Aspen High School basketball senior Sergio Ruiz, right, defends against Eagle Valley on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, at Basalt High School.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

After years of build-up, it’s all come down to two weekends for the undefeated Aspen High School boys basketball team. The hype is warranted with that perfect 22-0 record and No. 3 overall seed in the Class 3A tournament.

Now, the Skiers seek to finish what they set out to do, which is win a championship.

“Feeling good. Excited. It feels good just to have a normal state tournament again, compared to last year, and it feels really good to have Aspen hosting it again,” AHS coach Cory Parker said. “That’s only happened a handful of times in history, so it’s pretty special to be able to have them come back and host two games here. It’s going to be a fun atmosphere.”

As one of the top eight seeds in the 32-team tournament, Aspen gets to be a regional host. The Skiers will play their first-round game against No. 30-seeded Denver West (15-4) at 7 p.m. Friday in the AHS gymnasium. Before that, No. 14 Englewood (15-5) and No. 19 Kent Denver (15-7) will tango at 5 p.m., also inside the AHS gymnasium.

The winners of those two games will meet at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Sweet 16 round for the regional title, a game played on the Skiers’ home court whether they advance or not. The last team standing will move onto the heart of the state tournament and the quarterfinal round next week in Denver.

“That undefeated aspect of it, it is tricky at times. Especially getting to that state tournament,” Parker said, comparing this year’s team to the 2009-10 squad that got to 26-0 before losing to Faith Christian in the championship game. “A lot of those guys were varsity guys as sophomores in my senior year, like Matt Holmes and Andrew Papenfus. They were good. They were really talented, they were athletic. They had some good height that moved in. I know that they moved the ball really, really well. They used all of their team, very similar to how we do.”

Like the team as a whole this winter, Parker has yet to lose as the Skiers’ head coach, this being his first season in charge. The 2008 AHS graduate had been an assistant the past five seasons under former head coach Alex Schrempf, the two of them building the program essentially from scratch. This year’s roster began with 10 seniors, a group that’s mostly been together from the start and has seemingly brought the program back to its glory days under former coach Steve Ketchum, who retired in 2014 after 16 years in charge.

The first challenge en route to getting back to the championship game will be Denver West, a relative unknown for Aspen. Based off the little game tape he’s seen, Parker does expect the Cowboys to push the tempo on Friday night.

Aspen High School boys basketball coach Cory Parker talks to the players during their game against Eagle Valley in the Longhorn Classic on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, at Basalt High School.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“They have a solid record. They’ve only lost a handful of times and played a couple of good teams. I know they try to play a little bit fast. They’ll try to press you,” Parker said. “At this point every game is going to be a different tempo, a different pace than maybe what we are used to. So we are going to have to play the basketball we are capable of playing, but we are going to have to be able to play it right out of the gate.”

With largely this same group of players, Aspen advanced to the state quarterfinals last winter in a modified 24-team tournament because of the pandemic. After beating No. 11 Faith Christian, 61-52, in the Sweet 16, No. 6 AHS then lost 54-52 to No. 3 Sterling to finish 13-2 overall.

Parker hopes that experience will aid the team this weekend in its quest for the program’s first state championship.

“We are definitely ready for them,” Parker said. “This is where it needs to come together for everybody. And I think everybody knows that. I think we’ll see moments of that for sure. It will really just depend on who can withstand those moments the longest.”

Tickets for Friday’s game are $8 and must be purchased online in advance through GoFan.