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State Skiers!

Aspen players hoist the trophy after their 1-0 win over Ralston Valley in the 32nd annual Colorado state ice hockey championships Saturday at the Denver Coliseum. (John Leyba/The Denver Post)
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DENVER Aspen coach Al Butler compared his hockey team’s ups and downs this season to a National Lampoon movie. But even Chevy Chase couldn’t have drawn up a better ending for Saturday’s state championship. The third-ranked Skiers, who swept through the playoffs on the strength of its powerful offense – they scored 20 goals in three games – needed a strong effort from their defense to prevail against top seed and fellow 5A Foothills conference member Ralston Valley. They got just that. Aspen senior goaltender Cody Hornburg turned away all 23 Mustangs shots, allowing Aspen’s lone goal – fittingly scored off senior Nicky Anastas’ stick on a pass from senior Matt Butler in the second – to seize the state title. Hornburg and the Skiers withstood early and late charges from Ralston, whom they tied during the teams’ previous meeting this season, and pulled out the dramatic victory.The win is Aspen High’s second state title in seven days; the boys ski team parlays some strong performances on the slopes and nordic trails last week in Vail into the school’s eighth state ski title.

“This is unbelievable. The kids have to be so proud,” coach Butler said. “This is what our goal was from the beginning. We didn’t waiver.”I never imagined it would come down to one goal.”The Skiers took advantage of a Mustangs penalty and some nifty stick work from Matt Butler to break a scoreless tie with 4 minutes, 38 seconds to play in the second period. At 6:18, senior Ryder Fyrwald controlled a loose puck and drove into the Ralston Valley zone. Mustangs forward Chris Rose took Fyrwald down, and was whistled for interference. A few offensive possessions later, Butler controlled the puck behind the Ralston Valley net, and attempted a wraparound. When he came around the left side, he passed off to a waiting Anastas who buried a wrister into the right corner, beating goaltender Matt Herdiek. Herdiek had 13 saves in the game. The goal came mere seconds after the Mustangs threatened to take the lead. A shot trickled off the pads of Hornburg and rolled dangerously close to the goal line, but Simon Dolginow was there to swat it out of the zone.

“This has been a dream since I was a little kid,” Anastas said. “I felt the nerves, but I wanted to be on the ice as long as possible and do everything I could for the team.”Aspen (17-3-2), whose first state title comes in the midst of a 14-game unbeaten streak, overcame yet another sluggish first period start. The Skiers spotted Air Academy a 1-goal lead just 32 seconds into Friday’s semifinal, but managed to rebound. Saturday, they managed to head to the first intermission scoreless after being outshot, 10-2, during the first 15 minutes.”We started so well, and after the first we felt like the ice was tilted in our direction,” Ralston Valley coach John McKibbon said. “We thought that first goal would be ours.”They’re goalie played great. He made all the saves at the right time.”



Hornburg had 17 saves through two periods, but came up biggest in the game’s waning minutes as Ralston Valley tried desperately to score the equalizer. The Mustangs had their chance when, with 7:19 to play, Anastas was whistled for holding. Hornburg stood tall against an initial flurry of shots – and luck was on his side. Off a rebound, Ralston Valley’s Chris Rose controlled the puck off to the left and was staring at an empty net as he lined up a shot. The puck sailed one foot wide of the left post.”I was thinking ‘it’s 15 minutes to the state championship,'” said Hornburg, who admitted the butterflies were flying during the final period. “I wanted to protect the net for all of these guys. I couldn’t have done it without them.”During a frantic final two minutes, as both teams – and their fans – hung on every pass, Hornburg and the Aspen defense stood tall. Senior Andy Conarroe sacrificed himself with 1:15 remaining, hurling his body onto the ice to thwart a wide open Mustangs shot from inside the blue line; the puck deflected off Conarroe and out of play. Ralston Valley pulled Herdiek before the ensuing faceoff, but could not generate any more prime scoring chances. The Skiers clinched the victory when they won the faceoff with seven seconds remaining. The puck skidded harmlessly into an empty Mustangs zone as Aspen’s bench cleared and its contingent erupted.

“This is what we worked so hard for and I knew that, if it came down to a tight situation, we’d be prepared,” Al Butler said. “Cory’s made big saves in every game. We were outshot, 10-2, in the first, and he really kept us in the game.”And he helped seal the championship – the first ever by a school from the Western Slope – with his third shutout of the season.Anastas watched the 2001 Skiers squad relinquish a lead in the 2001 state title game and eventually lose to Liberty. He and five others – Fyrwald, Matt Cooper, Matt Butler, Tyler Moore and Conarroe – struggled through a 2-0 state soccer semifinal defeat during the fall sports season.All those experiences paid dividends Saturday with everything on the line, Anastas said.




“A lot of us played soccer and experienced that adversity as well as some earlier this season,” Anastas said. “It all worked out. Not man people can say they’ve experienced something like this.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.com.


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