Football: Skiers come up short in OT thriller
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Right arm wrapped firmly around weeping quarterback Rex Christensen and mouth quivering, Aspen assistant coach Reuben Burbach paused to compose himself as he gazed into his players’ eyes.
“You guys, I love you more than you’ll ever know,” he said moments after Saturday’s 21-14, overtime playoff loss. “You can look in the mirror after today and truly believe and know in your heart that you gave everything for each other. Nobody will take that away from you.”
One week ago, the Skiers huddled under this same goal post to celebrate both a landmark victory and the chance to play on.
This time around, they gathered to reflect, to provide comfort and to let the tears flow.
Saturday’s 2A state quarterfinal began with much promise. It ended in yet more heartbreak for Aspen.
“I thought this was our year,” said Skiers senior Taylor Mayer. “We left it all out there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough.”
Seventh-seeded Aspen (9-3) hung with 2A standout Kent Denver (10-2) for four quarters – and beyond – on an unseasonably warm afternoon at Aspen High School. The Skiers scored first and rebounded from two costly miscues with an impressive fourth-quarter touchdown drive to force overtime.
The Sun Devils, last year’s state runner-up, seized control from there, however. Quarterback Richard Yates bulled his way into the end zone from the 1-yard line on fourth down on his team’s first possession in extra time. The Kent Denver defense stood tall one last time on the ensuing Aspen possession, intercepting Christensen on fourth down to preserve a dramatic 21-14 win.
“I knew we were going to be in for all we could handle. I can’t say I’m surprised the game went the way it did,” said a relieved Devils head coach Scott Yates. “They were ranked No. 1 for a while this season for good reason. They’re not anything but a class act and a great team.”
A team that overcame much adversity this fall. A team that rallied after losing its star tailback to secure a fourth trip to the postseason in as many seasons and a second consecutive quarterfinal berth.
A team now reduced to mourning an opportunity lost.
“It was an honor to play in a game like this. Every one of us played our asses off, and I’m so proud of that,” Christensen said.
“A few mistakes cost us. A few crucial mistakes.”
The Skiers struck first in this defensive struggle, capitalizing on strong field position to vault into the lead. They orchestrated a nine-play, 43-yard drive that tailback Daniel Ryerson capped with a 1-yard touchdown run with 2 minutes, 44 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.
Aspen amassed just 65 yards of offense in the first half and 189 total against a stout Kent Denver defense that came in having allowed just one touchdown in its last six games, a span of 28 quarters.
The Devils found it difficult to move the ball, too. They went three-and-out and produced just 25 yards of total offense on their first five offensive series.
Matt Florence changed the complexion of the game in a hurry, however, little more than a minute before halftime. The Kent Denver tailback controlled a pitch from Richard Yates, faked a reverse and dashed 43 yards for the tying touchdown.
The Devils produced another big play, this time on defense, with 39 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Christensen’s pass on an attempted slant sailed high and was intercepted by cornerback Bailey Tills, who sprinted about 60 yards the opposite way for the go-ahead score.
The large crowd spilling out of the home bleachers was visibly deflated.
Christensen, who was picked off four times and misfired on nine of 15 pass attempts on the day, was unfazed.
“It’s like coach always told me, just forget about it,” he said. “I’m proud that as a team we had that poise. … That’s a testament to coach Sirko and what he has taught us. He’s such a huge part of who I am.”
Christensen helped the Skiers produce an answer – and quickly. He completed three clutch passes on the ensuing 12-play, 80-yard drive, one on a crucial third-and-6 that moved the chains.
Ryerson did the rest, taking a hand-off, shedding a few tacklers and rushing 26 yards to the end zone to tie the game.
The senior carried the ball seven times on the drive and 38 total. He finished with 156 yards.
Injured tailback Nicky Ufkes was among the first to congratulate his teammates when they jogged to the sideline.
“It wasn’t that much of a surprise. I knew what kind of fight this team has,” the senior opined.
“I still love being a part of this as much as I can, but I don’t feel good when I can’t be out on the field battling with the people I love so much. That’s all I wanted to do.”
Fittingly, this seesaw battle between both established and emerging state powers was settled in overtime.
The Devils opened with the ball and immediately went on the attack. On first-and-goal from the 10, quarterback Richard Yates connected with Tills on an 8-yard pass up the far sideline. After two failed attempts to punch the ball in, Yates lowered his head and followed his blockers into the end zone on a 1-yard, fourth-down keeper.
The Skiers were given the chance to match the touchdown and extend the game. Sirko opted to turn to workhorse Ryerson.
The senior was stuffed for no gain on first and second downs.
“I thought we could get a push. I thought they were wearing down, but they really hit us on those first two plays,” Sirko said. “More than anything else, when you’re down in that situation you have to do what you’re comfortable doing. We got out of our comfort zone, and that really hurt us.”
On third down, Christensen rolled out and looked to make a play; he was swarmed by a host of Kent Denver defenders and dropped for a 6-yard loss.
“That play won us the game [earlier this year against Shelley] in Idaho,” the signal caller lamented. “It’s been a reliable play all year.”
“We called a defense that was going to secure the fringes better,” coach Yates added. “It was the right defense at the right time. … We’re very fortunate.”
Christensen had no choice but to go to the air on fourth-and-long. His desperation heave across the middle was picked off by Richard Yates at the goal line.
Stunned Skiers players dropped to the turf. Sirko stared blankly at the turf as Kent Denver players and coaches flooded the field.
“I can’t say enough about the kids’ effort,” Sirko said later outside the locker room. “It’s just sad we lost. I was hoping to get another week with them out on the football field.”
“We worked so hard. I wish we had a little more,” added senior lineman Dane Christensen, who was among a group of players who lingered near the team logo at midfield long after the stands had emptied.
“[These four years] meant everything to me. I have never been so committed and loved something so much.”
David Stapleton is the development officer for the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club. A product of the club, AVSC sat down with Stapleton for a Q&A session in this week’s Clubhouse Chronicles.