Football: Aspen Skiers outlast Rams, secure playoff berth
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
CARBONDALE – The Skiers’ tenuous lead had vanished in the early stages of the fourth quarter Friday in Carbondale. It appeared as though their playoffs hopes had been lost, too.
Then came the season’s most indelible moment. Then came the drive for five.
Aspen, which failed to generate any offense in its first three second-half possessions, orchestrated an improbable drive that stretched 81 yards in 11 plays – the last a 1-yard scoring scamper from Casey Hornburg that put the Skiers on top, 17-14.
Much like they had all night, the visitors then produced a key defensive stop. They tacked on another score to clinch a 24-14 victory and, most important, a fifth consecutive postseason berth.
“We’re back in the show,” a beaming Skiers head coach Mike Sirko said. “After losing two weeks in a row, I’m proud of the way the kids responded. I loved the way they finished.
“It’s was one of those nights that was exciting. Almost too exciting as a coach.”
Aspen’s confidence was clearly shaken as the squad, trailing 14-10, lined up at its own 19-yard line with 8 minutes, 28 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Its offense, which struggled to gain any traction for much of the night, turned the ball over on downs and went three-and-out twice to start the second half.
The Skiers (7-3 overall, 5-2 3A Western Slope) had a short memory, however. Hornburg opened the drive with a 7-yard run up the middle. After moving the pile – and the chains – on third-and-3, the junior corralled a pitch from quarterback Tucker Beirne, paused and fired a strike downfield to tight end Jake Nugent for 14 yards.
Beirne dropped back on the ensuing play, lofting a towering pass over the middle that fluttered just over a defender and into the hands of Austin Roark, setting Aspen up at the Rams’ 16.
“Oh my god, I was holding my breath. … They kept defending Quinn [Morehead] on the wheel route, so we thought we’d have a shot with the post, and we did with the big guy,” Sirko said. “That was such a big play, the play of the game. That put us in a position to be able to do something.”
Workhorse Hornburg carried the ball six consecutive times after the long pass, finally bulling his way into the end zone to give the Skiers a 17-14 lead with 3:31 remaining.
They received some help on the ensuing kick-off; a Roaring Fork player fielded the kick instead of letting it go out of bounds, giving the Rams possession at their own 8. Their drive stalled after quarterback Clay Gross was whistled for intentional grounding, and the Aspen defense stood tall on fourth-and-11, forcing an incomplete pass and a turnover – Roaring Fork’s fifth of the night to that point.
The Skiers needed just one play to put this game out of reach. Hornburg took the hand-off on the first play of the ensuing drive, bounced outside and sprinted untouched up the far sideline 35 yards for the score, stretching the lead to 10.
Aspen cornerback Brendan Wagner pulled down a one-handed interception a few minutes later, and the celebration began.
“The kids gutted it out,” Sirko said. “There was a willingness and a desire to hang in there when things were not looking good.
“They withstood the onslaught, dealt with the adversity and responded well. That’s a life lesson.”
Hornburg finished with 158 yards rushing on 30 carries. Beirne completed 7 of 16 pass attempts for 106 yards and a touchdown – a perfect 30-yard fade pass on the first play of the second quarter that Morehead pulled down in the end zone, giving the Skiers a 7-0 cushion.
The Rams, who turned the ball over four times in the opening half – Aspen’s Daniel Schwartz had two interceptions and Joey Vernier one – squared the game 4:41 before the half on a 5-yard run from Johnny Nieslanik.
The Skiers responded with a seven-play drive capped with a 29-yard field goal from Erik Wehse, giving Aspen a three-point lead at the break.
That advantage lasted until the early stages of the fourth, when Nieslanik scored on fourth-and-goal from the 1 to give Roaring Fork a 14-10 lead.
Then, Aspen went out and locked up second place in the league and prolonged its season.
“This is our 40th win in five years. Pretty amazing,” Sirko said. “I’m kind of speechless right now.”
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Tejay van Garderen has long been one of the country’s top professional cyclists, having spent 12 seasons on the World Tour with various teams. His career came to an end in June when the 32-year-old announced his retirement.