Florence stifles Aspen in football playoff opener
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
FLORENCE, Colo. ” The stands had long since emptied, the scoreboard shut off. Celebratory blue and yellow balloons had disappeared into a sky of vast clouds. A soft breeze swept through hushed Husky Stadium.
But in the wake of Saturday’s 2A state playoff opener with Florence, a small group of Aspen players, coaches and family members lingered by the far goalpost long after the final whistle. While a loss to the Huskies abruptly cut their season short, the Skiers faithful wanted to savor the moment ” and the journey ” for as long as possible.
“It’s been a long season but it still went by way too quick,” senior Beau Seguin said, eyes bloodshot and tears welling. “I got an opportunity I never thought I would have. It’s been a hell of a ride.”
That ride came to an end on the plains Saturday afternoon. The 12th-seeded Skiers could muster just 34 yards of total offense in the first half against the fifth-seeded Huskies. Florence picked off Aspen’s Anderson Cole three times in the first 19 minutes and four times total and blocked a punt in the waning seconds of the second quarter. Huskies quarterback Heath Benker hit Bret Leader in stride for a 24-yard touchdown 23 seconds before the half to give his team a 16-7 lead.
Florence (10-1) never looked back. It controlled the ball and the scoreboard in the second half, and dropped the punchless Skiers, 36-13.
“I’m sorry we didn’t play that well, but I think they had something to do with it,” head coach Mike Sirko said after the Skiers finished the season 83. “We battled and showed that we belong … They just kept us at bay offensively. I wish we could’ve done more.”
The Skiers’ offense turned the ball over three times and went three- and- out twice during its five first-half possessions. Consequently, the pressure was squarely on the defense’s shoulders.
It kept the Skiers alive.
After safety Mike Martinez picked off the first of his two passes with 9 minutes, 49 seconds to play in the first quarter, the Huskies took over at the Aspen 48- yard line. They proceeded to pound the ball on the ground with Benker and running back Leader, stringing together a 13-play drive that chewed up nearly six minutes. Benker shed a tackler on a thirdand- 9 from the 13 and rushed up the sideline before being knocked out at the 5. On the ensuing play, he handed to Leader on a counter, but Aspen’s Taylor Mayer wasn’t fooled and dropped the running back for a loss and a turnover on downs.
A 15-yard face-mask penalty and field position did the Skiers in on Florence’s next possession, as Benker scored from 3 yards out to cap a 31-yard drive.
The Huskies took over at the Aspen 45 after Alex Hall picked off Cole one minute into the second, but they had to settle for a 33-yard Chris Cash field goal, stretching the lead to 10-0.
Florence controlled the ball for eight of 12 minutes in the first quarter. ” They stopped our run and they made us pass more than we wanted to,” Sirko said. “They got in our passing lanes, and we made some mistakes. … Our defense played outstanding.”
Benker rolled out on a second-and-13 with 5:16 remaining in the second and threw to Louie Montez. Seguin read Benker’s eyes, stepped in front of Montez, picked off the pass and scampered untouched for the 20-yard score ” his school-record 31st of the season ” trimming the deficit to three.
The tide had seemingly turned, as Aspen forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession and took over near midfield. The Skiers were derailed, however, by a delay of game, which tacked five yards onto what was a manageable third-and-seven.
The Huskies gang-tackled Seguin on the next play, then seized control of the game on fourth down. Chris Goetz broke free on the left side of the line and sprinted in to block Cole’s attempted punt. Goetz fell on the ball at the Aspen 27 with 1:03 to play before the half.
Benker made Aspen pay two plays later when he found Leader on a well-executed slant.
“We watched their safety on the possession before and noticed they were leaving the middle of the field wide open,” Florence head coach Mark Buderus said. “More important than the score, we got a lot of the momentum back. We had the ‘big mo’ on our side, which is so important in high school games.”
It was a bit of dejà vu for the Skiers. After a poor punt, they surrendered a touchdown with 30 seconds remaining in the first half of last November’s state opener in Eaton. The Reds took a 24-7 lead into the half and wound up winning, 30-7.
“We talk about special teams being a third of a game and how important it is,” Sirko said. “If we go into halftime at 10-7, it’s a whole different game. … You just can’t make those kinds of colossal mistakes against a team that good.”
While the mistakes didn’t plague the Skiers in the second half, their deficiencies on offense quelled any hope of a comeback. They held the ball for just one minute on the opening drive of the third quarter before being forced to punt. The Huskies promptly strung together a 10-play, 64-yard drive that Leader capped with an 8-yard run up the left sideline.
“When they shut us down on offense right away in the second half, it kind of got in our heads a little bit,” Aspen defensive lineman Tommy Mines said. ” That turned things around … We had an uphill climb.”
That climb proved too steep. The Florence defense dominated up front, holding Seguin to 46 yards on 13 carries and fullback Travis VanDomelen to 27 yards. Seguin entered Saturday’s game fresh off three straight 200-yard performances.
Sirko said Thursday that sustaining drives would be key. That statement proved apropos, as the stress of playing increased minutes wore down the Aspen defense.
Running back Erickson Beard scored from 1 and 5 yards out on consecutive drives in the fourth as the Huskies took a commanding 367 lead. Florence piled up 130 yards on those two drives against a visiblyfatigued Skiers defense.
Mines was helped off the field after a collision on the ensuing kickoff. He was overcome with emotion as he dropped his helmet and dropped to one knee.
“The emotions are obviously heavy,” said Mines, who finished with one sack and a team-high 13 tackles. “This is our last year and didn’t want things to end like this.”
Buderus’ gameplan to keep Seguin out of the end zone worked to near perfection. With 22 seconds, however, the standout back managed to cross the goal line for a final time, cutting back in customary fashion for a 4-yard score.
It came too late to keep the Skiers alive.
“They were a really great team. … I’m happy we won’t be turning our equipment in on Monday,” said Buderus, who coached his first prep game against Sirko when he was at Norwood and Sirko manned the sideline for Hotchkiss in the 80s. “Coach Sirko does a great job. He’s good for coaching and good for the kids. What he has done these last few years is amazing.”
While tears were abundant Saturday, Seguin said he takes comfort in being part of Aspen football’s improbable revitalization.
“We really showed what we have these past two years,” he said. “I now believe anything is possible.”
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