Parker, Skiers dreaming big |

Parker, Skiers dreaming big

Jon Maletz
Aspen junior Cory Parker dunks the ball during practice Thursday at Aspen High School's Skier Dome. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Time)

Aspen’s Cory Parker often takes a moment to let things sink in. The junior and budding basketball star says he still finds it hard to believe that he, a player from a small Western Slope school, is garnering interest from Front Range publications and college recruiters on both coasts – and nearly everywhere in between. He can’t walk the halls of Aspen High School without classmates, teachers and coaches stopping him, eager to offer advice and a little good-natured ribbing. Thursday, many were talking about The Denver Post’s prep sports preview, which singled out Parker as the player to watch in the 3A Western Slope. “They like to give me crap,” Parker says. “Someone asked me if I could fit through the door with my big head, if the attention has gotten to me.”To have this kind of pressure on me means I’m at the level I want to be, the level I expect to be.”The attention is hardly new: Parker distinguished himself as a fifth-grader at the Aspen Basketball Academy, Aspen head coach Steve Ketchum remembers. Because he had the best ballhandling skills in his age group, Parker often played the point despite being the biggest kid on the court. As he grew – he’s now 6-foot-6 – Parker’s all-around game developed. He was one of the state’s top six freshman in 2004, and last season was the only nonsenior to make the Slope’s first team. He averaged 14 points and six rebounds a contest for the Skiers, who lost in the first round of the state tournament to No. 1 seed Kent Denver. Coaches prognosticated after last season that Parker would be a shoo-in for league player of the year. And Kevin Pritchard, director of player personnel for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, who helps Ketchum run the Aspen Basketball Academy, told the Skiers coach last season that Parker has Division I potential. That prospect became a reality when Parker received a handwritten letter from an assistant recruiting coordinator at UCLA last season. The letter occupied prime space on the fridge for a few months, Parker says.

“That was the moment when I first knew it was possible to play Division I,” he says. “It was a big school with a big athletic program. They were the runners-up that year.”I could feel the pressure.”Subsequently, letters from schools across the country inundated the Parker household. Letters from the University of Northern Colorado, the University of Denver as well as Texas Tech, Weber State – even Harvard. Parker has the shooting range, size and versatility to play every position from post to point, Ketchum said. Still, the heightened publicity is difficult to fathom for the 16-year-old and the coach with 26 years of experience.”It’s almost too much hype,” Ketchum says. “There’s a lot of pressure that he has to handle. “I’ve never said this about any player in my 26 years, but he’s the best pure shooter and scorer I’ve worked with at any level. He’s got a shot at it [Division I] if he becomes more athletic, stronger and quicker. He’ll play somewhere.”The prospect of Parker playing in red and black for the next two years has Ketchum and Skiers fans beaming. A young Skiers squad’s success will ultimately come down to the play of their captain and leader. The high expectations are daunting, but Parker says he has embraced them. “It used to overwhelm me, but now it’s a tool,” Parker says. “I use it in more of a positive way. It gives me a goal and something to shoot for.

“How many kids get a chance like this? I’ve really learned to appreciate it.”Ketchum says he’s been impressed by Parker’s levelheaded demeanor. It’s a trait the coach attributes to Parker’s supportive parents.Parker at half-speed could be successful against any player during practice, Ketchum says. But Parker has the work ethic and drive necessary to continue improving. And he understands that Aspen will falter if he plays selfishly.”He’s smart enough to know he’s only as good as his teammates,” Ketchum says.The attention on Parker this season will generate opportunities for other players, Ketchum said. Double- and triple-teams on Parker will be commonplace and will put the onus of making open shots on the young supporting cast.The rest of the team has already accepted the challenge, junior captain Brian Westerlind said Thursday.”We’ve put in the hours, and we’ve gotten better at shooting by leaps and bounds,” Westerlind says. “I think we have the capability to go far this year. We have the ability, the talent and the chemistry.”There’s a lot of hype surrounding Cory, but we get some of that recognition, too. It doesn’t affect me. I congratulate him. He’s earned it.”Aspen will look for consistent production on the perimeter from a trio of guards – captain and lone senior Michael Holmes, and juniors Josh Gartner and Tommy Rittenhouse. And Westerlind’s ability to run the floor and compete in the paint will be an asset, Ketchum says.

“If they focus too much on Cory, we’ll have wide-open 3s,” he adds. “We have the guys to make them pay. We’ve got balance, and this is the best looking team we’ve had in years. If they don’t focus enough on Cory, he’ll make them pay.”Publications have surmised that Aspen is a year away from challenging Roaring Fork – sixth in the Denver Post’s preseason 3A rankings – for league supremacy and contending at state. Holmes disregards the observation.”That angers me,” he says. “[Roaring Fork] is aggressive and they play hard, but I think we have more talent. It’ll come down to how we use it and how well we work together.”Parker agrees.”We don’t want to think like that, or next year we’ll only have shot,” he says. “If we work as hard as we can this year, we’ll have something to fall back on. We have a long way to go.”The journey starts tonight when the Skiers host 4A Eagle Valley. Saturday, they host 2A Grand Valley.”I wouldn’t bet against us,” Ketchum said. “The future looks great, but the future is now.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.comThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.

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