Hardly perfect, the Aspen High defense has been reliable in crunch time
There is a malleable nature to the Aspen High School football team’s defense this season. It has given up its share of points and big plays, bending to the opposing offense’s will, but any time the game has been on the line it turns bullheaded and unalterable.
“Every once in a while they take that one play off and there is kind of our bend,” AHS defensive coordinator Chris Peshek said. “Once they lock in and know their back is at the wall, they step up and make some big plays.”
This “bend, but not break” mentality is a big reason why the Skiers are 5-0 overall and ranked No. 10 in Class 2A this week by CHSAANow.com. Aspen, 1-0 in Western Slope League play, will put its undefeated record on the line during Friday’s 7 p.m. homecoming game against visiting Basalt (4-1, 1-0).
While the Longhorns will surely provide the Aspen defense its most difficult test of the season to date, it’s a test the Skiers look ready to take head on. Aspen’s “black shirts” have hit every high and every low a team could in the span of five games, all starting with their 80-50 season-opening win over Middle Park.
Much of Aspen’s defensive problems in the first game came because it hadn’t figured out its new system, a 3-3 stack formation, compared to the four linemen front it had used in the past.
“It’s meant more to stop the run and we weren’t really doing that in the first game,” said AHS senior R.J. Peshek. “But through the past couple of games we’ve really grown and matured on defense. It’s helped with our smaller size.”
Aspen’s defense wilted to a 50-50 tie against Middle Park before it finally put the clamps down as AHS ran away with the win. It carried that late-game success into the following weeks, a 44-0 win at Arvada and a 40-0 win at Cedaredge, the back-to-back shutouts giving the defense a big boost in confidence.
The competition went up a notch the past two weeks. Aspen held off Grand Valley 30-26 on Sept. 22, stopping the Cardinals on downs deep in Skier territory late in the game for the win. Last week in the WSL opener at Coal Ridge, the high-scoring affair came down to a fourth-and-goal try for the Titans in the final minutes, an attempt that was denied by the suddenly stingy Aspen defense.
“It was a great growing up process for our kids,” Chris Peshek said of the team’s gritty defensive performance against a physical Coal Ridge team. “They had big boys up front and we had to be more physical than them. It was fun. As the game progressed they developed even a little bit more confidence that they could go shoulder to shoulder with those big kids.”
Last fall, the first under head coach Karson Pike, the undersized Skiers allowed 34.8 points per game en route to its second-consecutive 2-7 season. Including the 50 points allowed in the opener, Aspen has given up only 20.8 points per game so far in 2017, and only 13.5 points per game over the past four contests.
“After giving up way too many points last year, it’s fun to be on the other side of that,” Chris Peshek said. “Sometimes our kids are too smart and they overthink everything. Now they can just go and react and just let it fly like we did against Coal Ridge.”
Next up is the reigning league champion and an offense that could push the Aspen defense to a place it hasn’t been since the opener. The Longhorns, winners of four straight since a 34-14 zero week loss at Rifle, are averaging 42 points per game over that stretch. In most cases, they haven’t needed more than three quarters to reach that number.
A balanced team with a big, experienced offensive line, Basalt will be able to show everyone how far the Aspen defense has come since the opener.
“We’ve certainly played two quality teams, two physical teams, the last two weeks, which gave us an idea of what we will face this Friday,” Pike said. “It’s going to be a physical challenge for us. We are going to try and wear them out by running up and down the field. They are going to try and wear us out by running right at us. We’ll see who can last the longest on either end of that.”
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Strange is a word that will likely define the winter high school sports season. But, after numerous delays and endless doubts, that season is finally here. It will include fewer games, more masks and a lot of empty seats, but adapting to that strangeness is better than the alternative.