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Hoops: Tough tests loom for Aspen boys

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jim Ryan/Special to The Aspen TimesSkiers senior Jake Nugent shoots over a Gunnison defender during last week's district tournament opener at Aspen High School.
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ASPEN – Steve Ketchum spent about eight hours on the phone Sunday, conversing with coaches across the state and tracking down game film on the teams that will travel to Aspen this weekend for the opening rounds of the 3A state basketball tournament.

When he finally had the chance to review footage after Monday’s practice, the Skiers boys head coach was taken aback by what he saw.

“It was kind of scary,” Ketchum admitted Tuesday. “(The seeding committee) didn’t really do us any favors.”



A host of talented squads stand between Aspen and a trip back to the Great 8. The seventh-seeded Skiers, who Saturday earned their fourth district crown in five seasons and the right to host a sub-region, kick off postseason play at 7 p.m. Friday against No. 26 Lake County. A victory likely would set up a Saturday afternoon showdown with No. 10 Holy Family with a trip to Fort Collins on the line.

“Nobody wants the season to end. Nobody wants to go on to another sport,” Ketchum said. “This time of year, getting to the big dance and getting to Fort Collins is every kid’s dream. Very few people ever realize that. I’m very emotional when I talk to my players about this because I know how much this means. … We have to make the most of this, seize the opportunity.”




Aspen did just that this past weekend in Palisade, where it logged double-digit victories against Coal Ridge and Roaring Fork, following up its regular-season league title with a district win.

The Skiers, who last made the Great 8 in 2010, when they advanced all the way to the state championship game before being derailed by Faith Christian, now are 18-4.

They climbed to as high as fifth in a recent MaxPreps state poll and appeared primed to receive one of the tournament’s top seeds until Eaton upset Valley in district play, prompting some last-second reshuffling.

“You know what, we’re not that disappointed,” Ketchum said. “We can’t really complain. We got a home regional, and that’s what we wanted. Nobody is thrilled to come to Aspen in a snow storm and play us on our home court, and we’re happy we don’t have to sit on a bus for six hours.

“I feel comfortable with the draw, but there are no guarantees in life and upsets happen all the time, every single day. We can’t just show up and they hand us a win. We’ve got to play really well Friday, then Saturday play as good as we possibly can to win. It’s going to have to be our best effort of the year, but it’s doable.”

First up is a matchup with a Lake County squad that is 13-9 overall, finished 7-4 in the 3A Frontier and boasts a balanced offensive attack. Four players average nine or more points for the Panthers, who score 53.9 points per game – two more than the Skiers.

Lake County, 6-4 in its last 10, tested eventual district tournament winner and eighth-seeded Pinnacle last week, Ketchum said, squaring the game with 50 seconds remaining before faltering down the stretch in a 42-35 loss.

“They remind me a lot of Gunnison – a big guy like Austin (Roark), a forward like Jake (Nugent) who can run and jump and a little 3-point specialist who can just bomb away,” the coach added. “They look tough.”

Holy Family will square off with No. 23 The Classical Academy at 5 p.m. Friday.

Assuming the top seeds survive Friday, Ketchum said his team will be in for a battle against a Tigers squad that finished with a deceiving 13-9 record.

“The Metro is the best league in the state, and Holy Family played a brutal schedule. … They were fourth in that league and the top six teams, maybe seven, in that league have the ability to win a (sub-region) championship and get to the Great 8,” Ketchum said. “I’ve talked to everybody and seen footage on them, and I was like, ‘Wow, these kids have no weaknesses – they’re solid across the board, very disciplined.’ They have solid post play with a couple (6-foot-5) players and five or six that they rotate in and out at guard. They have no stars, which makes them even scarier; when a team has one dominant player, you often can figure out how to take them out of the game. … They remind me of us, if we’re playing really well.”

The Skiers appear to be playing their best basketball of the season. They’ve won six straight and nine of 10, and have benefited from the emergence of senior Austin Roark. The standout averaged more than 16 points per game during district play, highlighted by a 22-point effort against Gunnison and a 14-point, 11-rebound performance in a championship game win over Roaring Fork.

Aspen also will rely on Nugent and Quinn Morehead, who both are averaging about 10 points per game, and a stingy defense that surrenders 40.5 points and generates more than nine steals per contest.

“We’re playing smarter, playing harder and playing together but we’re still probably about two weeks from peaking,” Ketchum said. “We have to value the basketball, play extremely hard on the defensive end and keep the lights on. We have to stop letting the light switch turn off – those moments when we go brain dead, are not thinking and are nervous or scared.

“I just hope we can get through this weekend, have a few more days of practice and feel like we’re starting to peak in Fort Collins. That’s what you hope for, what we’re playing for. This is a team that can definitely do it. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com

• No. 7 Aspen (18-4) hosts No. 26 Lake County (13-9), 7 p.m.

• No. 13 Roaring Fork (15-7) vs. No. 20 La Junta (14-8) at Valley High School, 5:30 p.m.

• No. 21 Coal Ridge (10-12) vs. No. 12 Jefferson Academy (10-12) at Manitou Springs High School, 5 p.m.

• No. 25 Rifle (9-14) at No. 8 Pinnacle (17-6), 7 p.m.

• No. 27 Olathe (15-7) at No. 6 Pagosa Springs (17-3), 7 p.m.

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