Football: Aspen falls in Eaton in first-round playoff |

Football: Aspen falls in Eaton in first-round playoff

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

EATON, Colo. – As Aspen football players and fans gathered in the end zone Saturday, sharing embraces and tears in the late-afternoon sun, a solitary figure lingered near the 10-yard line.

Mike Sirko took a deep breath. The veteran head coach adjusted the brim of his cap and rubbed his eyes.

“The only one happy at the end of the state tournament is the winner, but that doesn’t make this any easier,” he said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “To win a state championship, everything has to be perfect. But you know what, if we keep knocking on the door maybe one day we’ll knock that sucker down. That’s our goal.”

The door will remain closed for at least another year. By the end of the first quarter on a blustery afternoon on the Colorado plains, the Skiers’ hopes of securing a third postseason victory in as many seasons effectively had blown away.

Efficient and physically imposing Eaton (9-2) led by seven after the game’s first 16 seconds and by 21 late in the first quarter. The fifth-seeded Reds’ punishing ground game and stingy defense ultimately wore down overmatched Aspen (7-4), resulting in a lopsided 48-20 opening round victory for the 2A Patriot League standouts and perennial title contenders.

“I felt like there were a few teams in this tournament that we could’ve played with, could’ve beaten,” said Sirko, whose squad was making its fifth consecutive postseason appearance. “They’re probably the best team we’ve played here in five years. … Today, we just ran into a buzz saw.”

That buzz saw cut right through the Skiers defense on the game’s first offensive play, when elusive Eaton tailback Austin Ekeler sprinted untouched for a 76-yard score.

“They came out a lot harder than us and really took it to us,” Aspen’s Quinn Morehead admitted. “At the same time, there were still 48 minutes left. You can’t let that get in your head. You have to shake it off.”

After forcing a punt on the Skiers’ opening possession, Ekeler and the Reds went back to work. They marched 81 yards in nine plays, culminating with a 3-yard touchdown run off tackle from Lincoln Korell.

Less than four minutes later, Eaton quarterback Jaden Olearnick lofted a perfect 21-yard fade to receiver Reed Merritt in the corner of the end zone, stretching the lead to 21 with 1 minute, 41 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

“They’ve got the whole package. They throw the ball well and have got a hell of a running back … and an offensive line that averages 250, 260 [pounds]. They really come off the ball – they’re not a bunch of big, slow kids,” Sirko said.

“You try to stay within your system, but [after a start like that] you have to break out of it a little bit.”

Aspen momentarily quelled the onslaught with a quick strike on the ensuing possession. Freshman quarterback Tucker Beirne dropped back and fired a slant pass to 6-foot-6 receiver Austin Roark, who outran the Reds secondary for a 51-yard score.

Later, after Olearnick connected with Britten Abbott on a 6-yard, fourth-down touchdown toss, the Skiers orchestrated a 14-play, 65-yard drive against an Eaton defense that came in allowing just nine points per game. Running back Laker Mines finished things off with a 3-yard run, and Morehead made an acrobatic catch for a two-point conversion, pulling Aspen to within 14.

EATON – After the Skiers defense finally forced a three-and-out about three minutes before the half, the visiting sideline was visibly energized.

That optimism vanished, however, after a stalled drive gave the Reds the ball with 1:21 remaining.

Eaton made the extra opportunity count. Olearnick capped off an eight-play, 61-yard drive with a short pass to Ekeler, who found himself all alone in the flat and jogged across the goal line.

“When one person makes a mistake and doesn’t do their job, it costs us all. It happens, but there’s nothing you can do about it except keep your head up,” Aspen cornerback Brendan Wagner said. “They’re a great team. … We kept fighting and fighting.”

To no avail.

The Skiers turned the ball over four times in the second half, three on interceptions from Beirne, who completed 11 of 25 for 150 yards. They could muster just six points in the final 24 minutes – Morehead scooped up an Eaton fumble on the far sideline and sprinted the other way for a score early in the fourth.

The Reds also committed four turnovers in a sloppy final half. They did, however, capitalize on good field position midway through the fourth. Soon after Aspen tight end Jake Nugent fumbled, Korell scored from 4 yards out to stretch the lead to 22.

Ekeler finished things off with about 4:45 remaining, shaking free for a 61-yard score.

“They deserved it. They were better than we were,” said Morehead, who also had an interception to go with seven catches for 62 yards.

“We gave it our all. We played as hard as we could. That’s all you can ask for.”

Still, the finality of yet another unceremonious postseason exit hit hard.

“I hate losing these seniors. I feel like a parent. Every year, I feel like an empty nester when they leave,” Sirko said.

“I would’ve liked a closer game, but we battled. We got back here with heart, determination and pride in the program. We’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”