Steamboat Springs Perhaps the biggest obstacle in the Sailors' 5-1 season has not come on the court.
As the Sailors entered their second basketball tournament, they were absent a player. Senior Ray Banning lay in an intensive care unit at a Denver hospital after complications from an operation to remove a bone tumor in his left calf.
With Banning's #40 written on red tape and wrapped around the top of their jerseys, the Sailors worked their way through the Steamboat Shoot-Out until dropping their first game to Aspen.
Back in Steamboat, beginning physical therapy and starting to use his left leg, Banning is on the road to recovery. And his teammates are ready to get back on the winning side of things as they begin their long road to the district tournament after the Christmas break.
If you would have told Sailors coach Kelly Meek this summer his team would be 5-1 at the mid-winter break, he might not have believed you looking at an almost entirely new team.
"For having lost five players, I feel we've made great improvements," Meek said. "This team plays hard."
The Sailors' tough defense is something Meek has been praising all year. So far this season, the Sailors have not had a team score more than 50 points.
As the team's lone returning starter, point guard Jeff Aragon helped open the season with five straight wins before the Sailors lost a 45-43 game to Aspen.
Moving from a shooting to point guard this year, Aragon leads the team in scoring with 13.8 points per game and in stealing with 6.3 per game.
"I think Jeff Aragon has done a tremendous job stepping into the point guard position." Meek said. "(A point guard) is crucial to a good team; that is where the decisions come from (on offense) and where the pressure starts on defense."
Aragon's teammates on the perimeter have also impressed Meek this year as juniors Cory Moore, Kyle Nelson, Cody Sherrill and John Daschle all contributed in the guard position. But Meek is looking at seniors Ryan Scheer and Alex Mackey to come out big as posts in league play. Working on inside play will be one of Meek's main focuses after the Christmas break.
Scoring from both inside and outside, Scheer follows Aragon in points with 13.5 per game and is second in rebounding with 7.5 per game. With 30 of Scheer's 81 points coming from outside the circle, Meek is looking at Scheer to be a more threatening presence from inside.
As last year's eighth man, Mackey "has come miles" for the Sailors, Meek said. The 6-foot-5 post leads the team in rebounding with 9 per game and has put in 9.3 points per game. Meek also likes the prospects of developing the inside play of Cameron Burney, a 6-foot-3 freshman.
"We could have the most dominate inside duo in the league," Meek said.
Meek admits there are plays Steamboat fans have not yet seen his team do, but he wants to save surprises for this year's tight league. With both Battle Mountain and Delta returning most of their starters, last year's low-ranked teams have evened out a league where Steamboat and Rifle were reigning powers.
"Top to bottom, yes, this year is more wide open than in past years," Meek said.
The Huskies, who have played primarily 3A and 2A schools, are the Western Slope's lone undefeated team.
While CHSAA prohibits Meek from holding practice for his team between the Christmas break from Dec. 22 to Jan. 2, the Sailors do get the chance to play ball at the Parks and Recreation Center. When the Sailors come back on Wednesday, they will be preparing for a Saturday match-up against Grand Junction Central.