Steamboat Springs The sting of last year's divisional playoff loss to the Rifle has faded, but emotions will still be running high tonight as the Sailors take the court for a rematch with the Bears.
"That was last year," Sailors head basketball coach Kelly Meek said. "That game is behind us now."
Meek said the annual showdowns with the Bears have become a great rivalry, and whenever the two teams meet, it will bring out the best in what both teams offer.
The next meeting will come at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Steamboat Springs.
"Every time we get together it's just a war," Rifle coach Roger Walters said. "Kelly does a great job with his kids every year, and that is why Steamboat has such a great program."
Walters said he has even taken a few lessons from Steamboat's longtime coach and the Sailors' program in his approach to the Bears' program.
Meek has coached for 27 years and built a 425-162 record in that time. Walters has been with the Bears for the past six years and is 59-47 as the head coach.
Last year, the Bears took the season series from the Sailors by winning three out of the five meetings between the two teams. The last game between the two teams knocked Steamboat out of the state title hunt.
This year, both teams will enter tonight's clash with undefeated records. The Bears enter the game at 8-0 (1-0) and the Sailors at 9-0 (2-0).
The game will weigh heavily in the league standings. The Bears have been favored to top the standings this year and will return all of the team's starters, including prep star Brain Beecraft.
Beecraft leads the state in scoring with 22.6 points per game. The 5-foot-11 senior forward was an all-state selection last year when he hit 44 percent of his shots from behind the 3-point line.
"Stopping Beecraft will be a key for us if we want to win this game," Meek said. "But Beecraft isn't the only thing we will need to stop."
Piloting the Bears' offense on the court will be junior guard Andy Gardineer. At 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, Gardineer uses his extreme quickness to excel defensively. He also tests opposing defenses with his quick moves to the basket.
"The Bears have several guys who can drive the ball," Meek said. "If you try to shut down one part of their game, they can kill you somewhere else."
Other starters will include Charlie Terrell a 5-foot-10 senior guard who is averaging 11 points per game. Tommy George is the squad's other forward and is at nine points per game, and Steve Winschell led the team in rebounding last season from his position as center.
The Bears like to spread things out on offense from time to time and can frustrate other teams with a methodical ball-control strategy aimed at taking time off the clock.
That doesn't mean, however, that this team can't score. In the first eight games this season, Rifle has averaged 74 points per game.
"I don't think we will score that against Steamboat," Walters said. "They are very good on defense."
The Bears have not played a game since Dec. 16, when they beat Pagosa Springs in a 77-62 contest. Walters said his team may still be feeling the effects of the long layoff when they play two key league games this week.
On Thursday, the Bears faced off against Glenwood Springs at home (no scores as of press time). Tonight they will face Steamboat here.
"We have just tried to focus on one game at a time," Walters said. "We spent a lot of time scouting Glenwood, but we pretty much know what Steamboat is going to do."
The game will be a big test for the Sailors, too. Steamboat will be without leading scorer Andrew Johnston, who twisted an ankle and damaged ligaments in the Sailors' last game. Steamboat's Danny Weber has also been hobbled by two bad ankles this season.
"We are going to need some guys to step up, step in and execute our system," Meek said. "I've said all along that the strength of this team is our depth now we are going to find out."
Johnston's status is week-to-week. But Meek said he doesn't want to risk permanent damage by bringing Johnston back before he is ready.
Two other players, guard Kyle Nelson and forward Cody Sherrill, were also battling injuries and illness this week, but Meek feels as if those players will be ready to go tonight.
Alex Mackey, Ryan Scheer and Hunter Maddox will all step into a basic seven-man rotation for the Sailors. Meek is confident the younger players will be able to pick up the slack in the absence of Johnston.