Steamboat Springs You can bet that when Steamboat Springs snowboarding coach Mike Mallon looks back on 2001, he will be cracking a little smile.
Right now, the smile is restrained, but pretty soon he is hoping to bust out a grin that will reach from ear to ear and show off every last pearly white tooth he has.
"I'm really happy with everyone's riding," Mallon said. "On the tour right now, it is the U.S. Team and us. There are other teams, and riders, but none of them are even close to where we are right now.
"I don't mean to toot our own horn, but every race we beat a few of the other top riders and squeak our way in," Mallon said. "These guys (the ones we are beating) are the best in the country and in the world. Our little program, from our little town, is in serious contention."
Mallon said the Steamboat riders still lack the experience and age of most of the competitors out there, but that advantage is slowly slipping away.
"What we have is the future of this sport, and we are looking forward to this season and the challenges ahead," he said.
The Steamboat riders were knocking at the door of the current elite group last week during events in Utah.
On Dec. 21, the local riders competed in a parallel snowboard giant slalom at the Olympic venue in Park City.
The event will be used to help the Americans select the team that will compete this February. That team will be made up of three men and four women.
"It was a technical and fast course," Mallon said. "The field was really deep with a lot of Europeans and Japanese racing and hoping to get another run on the Olympic hill."
Top local finishes included Darren Ratcliffe, 19, who qualified 13th.
Justin Goto was just one-tenth of a second behind and secured the No. 15 spot. The top 16 riders advanced to the knockout rounds. Both local riders, however, were eliminated early in the knockout rounds.
"They were the youngest riders out there to make the cut (round of 16)," Mallon said.
"They showed tremendous maturity and skill to qualify at a race of this caliber."
Other top local finishers included Adam Casanova in 17th, Brad Dumas in 21st, Ryan Miller in 24th, Garrett Soterburg in 32nd and Jason Jameson in 45th place.
On the women's side, Michelle Gorgone finished in 12th, Rebecca Basset in 15th and Sarah Hamor in 16th.
Although the local women made it to the knockouts, none would advance into the finals.
On Dec. 23, the team posted a number of other top finishes at Snowbird, Utah, during an International Skiing Federation Continental Cup race.
"I think the pressure was off and our true colors definitely showed," Mallon said.
Basset qualified third and ended up taking a fourth-place medal home after the knockout rounds.
"I'm bummed I missed the podium, but I'm looking forward to being more comfortable in these situations in the future," Basset said.
Steamboat's Erica Mueller finished sixth in the qualifying and had to face teammate Hamor, who qualified eighth, in the first round of knockouts.
Hamor won the bittersweet contest and went on to finish eighth in the final standings.
On the men's side, Goto laid down a great run to earn the No. 7 spot in the finals. He went on to place ninth in the final standings.
Teammate Ratcliffe also had another strong showing, upsetting U.S. Snowboarding Team member Ryan McDonald in the first round and placing eighth in the event.
"I'm stoked with my riding," Ratcliffe said. "I'm a little upset I couldn't ride this well at the Olympic Qualifier (in Park City), but it's cool to know I took down one of he guys who will probably go to the big dance. It's all about having that special day when it counts. It's tough to stay focused when it is all on the line, but that's part of being a competitor. I'm still searching for that day, hopefully in Bachelor it will be there."
Steamboat's Casanova was 16th, Michael Bates was 19th, Soterburg was 23rd, Dumas was 24th, Vic Wild was 26th, Miller was 30th and Jameson was 36th at the Continental Cup race.