The ‘curse’ in the past, Aspen volleyball looks to make postseason return
Bailey Holmes called it the “Curse of Aspen volleyball.” The first-year Aspen High School head coach and former AHS assistant inherited this curse — the team’s inability to unify — but for whatever reason, it hasn’t hexed the Skiers like in past seasons.
“Aspen’s teams have always had a lot of talent and they just could never manage to play together,” Holmes said. “But these girls have definitely exceeded my expectations. They’re teammates, and that definitely shows on the court and is a huge part of their success.”
Aspen hasn’t finished the season above .500 since going 12-10 in 2008. Last fall, it went 11-11. The Skiers haven’t had a postseason appearance since playing in the district tournament in 2011.
This fall, with only two weeks remaining in the regular season, Aspen sits at 10-4 overall and is in an ideal spot to make it back to the postseason.
The reason behind the success always seems to go back to chemistry. The Skiers have numerous faces on the court this season who didn’t see a lot of playing time in 2016. This includes newcomer Gaia Murphy, a junior transfer from Los Angeles who took over as the team’s setter this season and quickly became one of the team leaders.
“They welcomed me to the first practice,” said Murphy, whose first name loosely translates to “Mother of the Earth” in Greek mythology. “I decided the week before coming (to Aspen) to play on the team, and I’m so happy I did. It’s beyond worked out, for everyone I think. We came into this and our chemistry just clicked.”
Aspen won its first six matches of the season before falling to powerhouse Coal Ridge. The Titans, currently 15-1 overall and ranked No. 6 in Class 3A, have only been tested like they were against the Skiers once — Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Montrose. Aspen led the match 2-1 and had the mighty Titans on the ropes before losing the fourth set 25-23 and fifth set 15-7.
To date, Coal Ridge has only been to five sets those two matches.
“Maybe next year we’ll actually finally beat them,” AHS junior Jasmin Hanson said. “It did give us that confidence of we can beat anyone no matter how tall their girls are compared to us. It does give us that confidence to push forward.”
Battling injuries, the Skiers looked on the verge of crumbling after the Coal Ridge loss. All four of their losses came in the span of five matches, albeit to strong opponents including Delta, Vail Mountain and Class 4A Battle Mountain.
But with recent wins over Basalt, Rifle and Cedaredge, the feeling is the swagger has returned.
“Our Coal Ridge game, even though we lost, was such a high. They played so well,” Holmes said. “We actually kind of plateaued, if not regressed, a little bit after that. It made me a little bit nervous seeing that, but I think it was the midseason burnout happening to us. After watching them play in Cedaredge on Saturday, they are definitely back to 100 percent and upping their game again.”
Aspen next plays at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday against visiting Basalt in its breast cancer awareness game (it’s suggested fans wear pink to show their support). AHS then hosts Olathe on Saturday afternoon in its final home match before playing in a tournament hosted by Manitou Springs the following weekend.
With Coal Ridge well on its way to earning the 3A Western Slope League’s automatic regional berth, Aspen will need to qualify via RPI. A total of 36 teams will make one of the 12, three-team regionals based off the rating percentage index, with the regional winners advancing to the state tournament.
Aspen’s RPI was No. 24 as of Tuesday evening. Basalt (8-8 overall) was No. 48. Meaning, should the Skiers take care of business these final two weeks, a trip to the postseason is all but guaranteed. Although, there is no such thing as a guarantee in sports.
“We saw Basalt a few weekends ago at the Battle Mountain tournament and they definitely are making us a little nervous because I think they are one of those sleeper teams,” Holmes said. “They have improved so much. If these girls decide not to show up on Thursday, Basalt will definitely take advantage of that and crush all of our regional dreams.”
Aspen beat the Longhorns 3-1 on Sept. 5 in Basalt and 2-0 on Oct. 7 at the tournament hosted by Battle Mountain.
“Going into regionals and maybe potentially state, if we get to play Coal Ridge again, it is exciting,” Murphy said, “because we saw that we can play up to that level and we have the potential to beat teams like that, if we choose to do so and put it all out there.”
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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.