AFTER THE WHISTLE

Sailors in springtime

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— Walk into the halls of Steamboat Springs High School after 3 p.m. these days and the true feeling of spring will hit you like a ton of bricks.

Well, maybe not bricks. But there is a good chance of being smacked by a fast-flying soccer ball if you're not paying attention.

Oh yes, forget the groundhog. The true sign that winter will soon come to an end here in Steamboat Springs is the start of spring practice at the high school.

The other day, as I wandered through the halls taking feature photos for a story on the girls soccer team, I had to wonder if there is any other place in the region quite like Steamboat a town that has built a tradition of successful spring sports despite the fact that most local fields are still buried by several feet of snow for a large part of the season.

It's a tradition that, at least for the girls soccer team, has always started with indoor practices in late February and for the past several years has ended with a trip to the state playoffs in May.

The team's success is amazing when you consider that the first time these girls will play on the green grass of a soccer field is in a game.

Before that, the team must practice passing the ball on the hardwood floors in one of the two gyms at the high school.

The players practice ball control by dribbling the ball around the pillars in the narrow hallways, which are packed with 53 wannabe players who are hoping to make the final varsity cut.

To the outside observer, the practices seem more like a three-ringed circus than beginnings of a championship-caliber soccer team.

Some people might think this is a ridiculous way to open any season and who would blame those flatlanders from the Eastern Slope for thinking that the Steamboat Springs girls soccer team's chances of winning a state title would be a long shot.

But the local team has already proven the critics wrong by collecting the state's highest prize just a few years ago.

It's a very different story from where I grew up.

Instead of enjoying the warm weather outside, Steamboat athletes must deal with the challenge of training in packed hallways and gyms this is the norm.

I grew up in the Denver Metro area where, with the exception of a few late-season snowstorms that last about a day, March means spring. Kids flock to the local fields to play games like soccer, baseball and lacrosse. The local fields are packed. When I came to Steamboat, I was caught off guard. Here spring means mud, heavy, wet snow and it usually doesn't hit its full stride until sometime in late April. For those of you keeping score that's the end of the spring sports season.

But the 183 students who come out for soccer, baseball, lacrosse and track rarely complain about the conditions. It's just a fact of life when you live in Ski Town USA.

The alternative is to not play at all and, judging by the number of athletes who were crowding the halls this year, this isn't the case in Steamboat Springs.

Here, participating in sports in the spring is more of a ritual than recreation. Athletes and coaches who are eager to get started must use their heads to prepare their teams for opening day.

They must be creative to work with what they have within the confines of the high school's shelter. In the past coaches have gone head to head with Mother Nature using shovels to push the snow off the all-weather track in an effort to gain valuable days outside.

A month from now, weather permitting, these athletes will start to head outside as winter's tight grip begins to loosen and summer begins to make its entrance. I'm sure, by then, several Sailors will be eying possible state berths.

It has always amazed me how competitive the local athletes are with other teams in the league most of which have slightly better early season conditions when it comes to spring sports. I am also amazed at the large number of students who come out to practice these sports in the indoor conditions in Steamboat.

In the past, I've watched some of these teams and a few of their athletes grow into state champions in both soccer and track.

And while there are still several feet of snow on the ground outside, inside the heated hallways of the high school spring has already bloomed in the form of a new sports season.

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