Steamboat Springs There are just two teams standing between the Steamboat Springs High School football team and a berth to the state playoffs.
The first is the big bad Bears from Rifle and the second is a surging Delta team that also has its sights set on a trip to state.
If the Sailors can beat one of those teams in the final two weeks of the regular season, they will punch their ticket for a state playoff appearance. And if Steamboat can beat both of those teams, the local boys could grab a share of the Western Slope title and improve their seeding in the state playoff picture by leaps and bounds. The only team left that can knock the Sailors out is Delta. The Panthers would need to win the last two games and have the Sailors lose.
"If we win one we are in. Two gives us a shot at the title. That's what we want," Sailors head coach Mark Drake said.
The first big test will come with a 7 p.m. kickoff today in Rifle. The Bears are tied with Palisade at the top of the league with 5-0 records. Rifle's only loss of the season was to Fort Morgan back in September.
"We feel confident that we can get this group," Drake said of the Bears. "We just need to play at a high level, and there is no reason we can't win this game."
Bears coach Darrel Gorham said his team is expecting a battle with the Sailors this year, and he is happy the game will be played in Rifle.
"You can see that they've improved a lot from last year," Gorham said. "Our challenge is going to be holding their offense to under 30 points."
Gorham said the Bears and Sailors have developed an intense rivalry over the past several years. He expects his team to be up for the game, even though Rifle has already secured a playoff berth.
The Bears are led by junior quarterback Ryan Whittington and two talented runners in Ryan Enright and Doug Gieck.
Gieck is closing in on 1,000 yards this season with 950 on the ground. Enright also is close to the mark with 881 on the year. As a team, the Bears have rushed for 2,423 yard on the ground and thrown for just more than 840 yards in the air.
The Bears' deep threat comes from receiver Lehvy Davis, a 6-foot-1 senior. Davis has 26 catches for 346 yards this season. Drake said the left-handed Whittington has plenty of strength to get the ball downfield as well.
Rifle's high-powered offense is known for sustaining long drives and getting off to a quick start. The Bears have netted 103 first-quarter points this season.
Gorham said Rifle has been successful on the field this season despite losing many of last year's starters.
"We've been able to build a very successful program in Rifle," Gorham said. "It's nice. It seems like when one group of seniors is ready to leave, another group of players is ready to step in and take it. I think that's a sign of a well-run program."
Rifle went undefeated in conference play last year and advanced to the state quarterfinals before losing to Alamosa 20-0.
Gorham said his players expect to make the playoffs every year and he is hoping this is the year the Bears can grab an elusive state title.
He also praised the Steamboat program, saying Drake always seems to have his players ready to go at kickoff.
This week, Steamboat will be without Derek Haverley once again. Drake said Haverley hasn't practiced this week and the coach didn't want to chance making his player's injury worse by trying to rush him back into the lineup. The Sailors also lost defensive back Ryan Wattles to a knee injury. Drake was unsure if Wattles will be able to return this season.
Drake said a key for the Sailors will be the play of quarterback Rusty Eck. Eck has passed for 800 yards this season on 102 attempts.
"If we want to win this weekend, we are going to have to be able to throw the ball," Drake said.
Stewart Beall also will be hoping for a big game. The Steamboat senior has rushed for 723 yards this season on 89 carries. He has two games left to get to the 1,000-yard mark.
It will be a challenge against a top Rifle defense led by senior linebacker Jeff Harper. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior has 93 tackles on the season. Teammate Anthony Alfini has 60 tackles on the season and two fumble recoveries. Lineman Nick Bosworth has recorded four sacks and Davis leads the team in interceptions with four.
"A lot of folks around here are saying Palisade is the game we have to worry about, but I think Steamboat is the game," Gorham said. "They've got a very good football team and I'm sure they are going to be ready since they are fighting for a playoff spot."
To reach John F. Russell call 871-4209 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org