New faces, same high expectations
ASPEN Cross out the departing players in last year’s Aspen soccer team photo, and a crowded image of 15 in front of a goal becomes an empty net. Twelve players, among them six Western Slope first-teamers, from last year’s league champion and state semifinalist are gone. Only Wiley Maple, Jesus Mesa and Murphy Fyrwald remain. The trio scored just one of the team’s 84 goals last season.The task before coach Junior Sutherland is a demanding one. But he’s been in a similar situation.”In 1999 we lost 13 seniors, and we thought we were done for,” Sutherland remembered. “We ended up making the state final.”Expectations remain high this season for a young and largely untested group of Skiers who have some big holes to fill. There’s none larger than the void left by two-time Slope MVP Stephen Buzbee, 3A’s third-most-prolific goal scorer last season. He scored 29 goals, including three in two wins over rival Basalt, and went scoreless just once in 18 games. Aspen had planned on building this year’s offense around first-teamer Tyler Moore and honorable mention Baker Boyd, but neither will be suiting up for Aspen. Moore is focusing on hockey, and Boyd is playing for a touted club team in California. The duo combined for 19 goals and eight assists last fall.Mesa’s status was also in limbo. The junior, who contemplated returning to his hometown of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, decided just two days before the start of classes to remain in Aspen.”My mom is back there, and I haven’t been home for five years,” said Mesa, who lives with his father and two sisters. “[The decision] was part soccer. I get better opportunities here.”
A group of young players will also have the chance to shine. Cody Baker returns from an ACL injury that sidelined him for all of 2006. Italian exchange student Giovanni Negroni has shown promise this preseason and could see time at forward and midfield. Junior Alex Owen is the favorite to replace Conarroe.
Sutherland is excited about juniors Robbie Franklin and Ben Armstrong, two players of many he expects to pose a threat from outside the box. “You should see [Franklin] score,” Sutherland said. “Not only does he have the skills, he has an eye for the goal. He saw the light, he knows where the net is and he will score a few goals. … With [Armstrong], I’ve never seen a kid shoot as well with his left and right foot. He has the best shot on the team.”Sutherland is also anticipating production from juniors Dane Kornasiewicz and Kyle Lusk. Positions will largely be determined after this weekend’s tournament. Aspen faces Cortez on Friday, and Montrose and Telluride on Saturday in the Montrose Invitational. Despite lingering uncertainty, Sutherland is convinced the pieces are in place to challenge Basalt for a Slope title.
“We have young guys with a mission,” he said. “This a good group with a lot of talent.”Maple, the one returner who started the bulk of last season, agrees.”We won’t be as calm as last year – we just passed the ball around, and the other teams were chasing us,” he said. “There’s a lot more one-man stuff going on so far. We have the potential to be good if we pass. I’ve seen them do it.”While Mesa thinks this season will be a challenge, especially as the team continues to come together, he believes the Skiers are talented enough to return to the final four. Sutherland, who insists comparing this year’s team with the 2006 Skiers is “silly and unfair,” is optimistic Aspen will be playing on the Front Range in November.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far. They work hard, and they really want it,” he said. “They know they’re in the shadows of last year’s team, and they want to prove themselves.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Winter sports practices were officially allowed to begin last week, Jan. 18, after the Colorado High School Activities Association was given a variance from the state’s health officials. Games were allowed to be played starting this week.