Less than two minutes left in the game, the Pirate defense had shut down Aspen’s final drive deep in the Skiers’ territory, forcing the punt on a fourth and long.
The punt could well have changed Pagosa’s fortunes and, with one minute, 18 seconds to go, would have allowed the Pirates a narrow window to drive to the Skiers’ goal line.
Unfortunately, unable to hold onto the kick, the Pirates gave the ball back to Aspen, dropping their chances for moving on in the playoffs with a heartbreaking 41-46 loss to the Skiers.
Starting the game in a blinding snow storm, the Pirates appeared poised to take advantage of the home field advantage and gain the momentum. Despite an early Aspen lead with 9:09 left in the first quarter, the Pirates came back on a strong kick return from Tyler Sharp, setting up Pagosa’s drive on the Aspen 31-yard line. After a quick drive and a short Taylor Shaffer pass to Tyson Ross at the 8:11 mark, the Pirates took a 7-6 lead.
The snow and slick field worked to Pagosa’s advantage when a flubbed Pirate kick bounced off the back of an Aspen lineman and was picked up by Garrett Fitch. After a brief drive, Shaffer rushed 11 yards for the score, giving the Pirates a 13-6 lead with 4:32 left in the quarter.
With the snow coming out early in the second quarter, the Skiers regained the lead with 11:12 left as Aspen quarterback Anderson Cole, his offense carried on the back of the unstoppable Nicky Ufkes (who rushed for 314 yards during the game), stepped across the goal line to gain a 13-14 lead. In fact, with the Skiers running only a handful of variations of a Power-I offense, the Pirate defense had a journeyman’s effect against an offense that came quick off the snap and was spearheaded by the Ufkes’ undeniable talent.
“We watched a few films of him (Ufkes) and saw that he’s a patient, smart running back,” said Pirate Coach Sean O’Donnell. “We knew that he would be hard to stop.”
However, Aspen was likewise hamstrung by Shaffer’s attack in the air and on the ground. With 8:56 left in the second quarter, Shaffer connected on a perfect 30-yard pass to Ross at the goal line; Shaffer’s dash in for the two-point conversion gave the Pirates a 21-14 edge. However, with Ufkes pounding through the Pirate’s defense, Aspen was able to tie the game with 5:12 left, capitalizing on one of Pagosa’s numerous penalties. Although Shaffer tapped Zach Lucero for the snag of the year (followed by a conversion by Dakota Miller), giving the Pirates a 29-21 edge, another all-Ufkes drive allowed the Skiers to close the gap to 29-27 with 2:28 left in the half.
Regarding inclement conditions, O’Donnell said, “I felt like the weather worked in Aspen’s favor, but I don’t think it was a major factor in the game. I think our kids played well in those conditions, with a wet, slick field. We had some kids who are mentally tough and played through that.”
Electing to receive to start the second half, the Pirates should have had the upper hand for the half, but a strong Skier defense held Pagosa to a punt. Taking over at their own 13-yard line, Aspen never got far after Tyler Sharp knocked the ball loose from Ufkes and fell onto the ball to gain possession. Sharp completed his snub to the Skiers, taking a short toss from Shaffer to put the Pirates up 35-27 with 7:39 left in the third quarter.
Not giving up, Aspen’s Ufkes made the most of an effective offensive line, chewing up Pagosa turf and turning the drive into a 35-33 game at the end of the third quarter.
Still strong on passing against the Skier’s defense, the Pirates were hounded by penalties, and a fourth quarter drive was shut down on calls while, forced to punt, Aspen yardage was expanded as Pagosa players continued to draw flags. Again, with the Skiers sliding towards the goal on the strong thighs of Ufkes, Aspen regained the lead, 35-39, with 6:56 left in the game.
With the Pagosa offensive line seeming to fall apart, taking sacks and almost forcing a fumble, the Skiers eventually overwhelmed the Pirates, taking a shaken Shaffer off guard and picking off a pass with 5:14 left in the game. Ufkes bounced off Pirate tackles like a pinball, dominating the ground game, and the Skiers managed to regain the lead, 46-35 with just 4:04 left in the game.
Despite good pass coverage, the Skiers were unable to shut down Shaffer and, after a long pass to Jordan Caler well into Skier territory, the Pirates were able to tighten the deficit to 46-41 with a rush by Ross into the end zone on fourth and one with only 1:53 left in the game.
An onside kick played by the Pirates on a cold, wet field was inconsequential and Aspen took possession with excellent field position. However, a fired up Pagosa defense drove the Skiers back into a fourth and 23 position, forcing the punt.
Down five points and with just over a minute left, the Pirates should have been in a perfect position to come back. Unfortunately, it appeared that the slick, snowy field worked both ways and Aspen was able to recover the bobbled reception, setting themselves up for just downing the ball, running out the clock and moving onto the final eight of the state playoffs (facing Faith Christian next week in Aspen) while handing the Pirates a 46-41 defeat in their final game of the season.
Looking back on his team’s season, O’Donnell said, “It was a fun season, a fun bunch of guys to be around. It’s always hard to say goodbye to a bunch of seniors.”
Over a dozen seniors will depart the team this year, leaving 21 freshman, sophomores and juniors on the remaining varsity squad. Next year should be interesting as that talent and experience steps up to man yet another year’s Pirate football team.