Friday night lights return to Aspen
After a 16-year wait, it’s time to flip the switch.Tonight the lights return to Aspen High School.”I think everyone is pretty excited,” said Aspen School District Superintendent Diana Sirko about the first varsity home football game to be played under lights since 1990. “It should be a big community gathering. Lots of people who don’t have children in schools still will be there. I think it’s exciting for everybody.”Well, not everybody.The new $200,000 lights, which were funded through private donations and installed this summer, have drawn a handful of complaints, most of them from homeowners near the field, Sirko said.Those complaints have been overshadowed, however, by the large number of positive remarks Sirko has heard during the months and weeks leading up to tonight’s game.For the most part, the community seems to be behind the idea of bringing Friday night lights back to Aspen.”We’ve heard from a few people in the area,” she said. “What people are asking us to do is use the lights judiciously and not have them on all the time, so we’re trying to be respectful of that.””The kids are looking forward to it,” said Aspen football coach Travis Benson. “It’s going to be bright. It’s going to be exciting.”Tonight’s game against Grand Valley is one of five home football games for the Skiers this fall. The boys soccer team will also play some night games on the field – although Sirko said the exact number hasn’t been set yet. She estimates the lights will go on fewer than 10 times during the upcoming season.The last time Aspen had a football team play a home game on Friday night was under much different circumstances. Or, more specifically, under much different lights.The Skiers used to play across the street from the high school on the outfield grass of Iselin Field. There were two large light stands in left and right field, and much smaller lightstands around the perimeter of the infield. The one thing most people remember about the setup was how certain portions of the field had too much light, while elsewhere whole swaths of turf were left in the dark.”Depending on which way you looked, you were going to get blinded or you couldn’t see anything,” said Dave Connaroe, a semiretired teacher who was the athletics director at the high school until 1999. “It was really pretty funny. But they had to do it that way because you couldn’t have a pole in the middle of the baseball field.”The field wasn’t ideal, either. Built on an old dump, the turf was constantly sinking in places, and every once in a while, the frame of an old rusted car or a refrigerator would start peeking through the grass, Connaroe said.”It was a real dump,” he said, laughing.But it was also a great setting for a community to gather around its high school athletes. Connaroe estimates that as many as 500 people would come out to watch the games.”There were certain times throughout that period in the ’80s where we had really good teams that were competing for spots in the state playoffs,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”The decision to move the football team’s games to the middle school field was one of a numbers of factors that led to the death of the program in 1994 – Benson’s senior year at the high school.The advent of a valleywide youth football program and mounting pressure from parents led the school district to bring back a junior varsity program in 2000. In 2002, the school fielded its first varsity football team in eight years.The only thing that was still missing was lights, said Benson.That, and a decent playing surface that would hold up throughout the season.A year after Benson took over the program, the Skiers have their lights, and a new $800,00 turf field.The city of Aspen and the school district each chipped in $300,000 for the field, with the remaining funds coming from private donors. Private donations have also been secured for the second phase of improvements, which include new home bleachers with a press box, bathroom facilities and a concession stand.The whole project is expected to cost $1.5 million.For now, the old concrete stands and a set of portable bleachers hopefully will suffice for all the games – football, soccer and lacrosse – on the field this year.The high school’s current athletics director, Carol Sams, estimates that the bleachers on the home side of the field will be able to seat as many as 500 people.If more people come for tonight’s game, they’ll just have to line field, Sams said.Benson hopes that’s the case.”This field should help our program grow by leaps and bounds,” he said. “It’s a reward for all the hard work the kids do year round.” “It’s what a small town is about,” Connaroe added. “Having [games] on a Saturday afternoon is very beautiful, but I just think, you know, people have a lot of things to do during the day. On a Friday night, it’s sort of a cultural thing in the United States. Having Friday night football back will be important to the school and I think the people in town with probably embrace it. It’s what we do.”Note: Due to lack of parking, school officials are urging spectators to take the bus or carpool to tonight’s game.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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