AFTER THE WHISTLE

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— Small packages

When I was a young child anxiously waiting for Christmas morning, my mother would always tell me that the best presents normally come in the smallest packages.

It took me a few years, but eventually I figured out what my mother was really telling me: not to expect the 10-speed under the tree this year.

I consider my mom's words, and the underlying meaning, one of the great lessons she has ever passed on to me.

Last week in Denver, the fans of the Steamboat Springs High School boys basketball team surely were not thinking about Christmas, but they also learned another importance lesson about size.

The Sailors, who shocked the prep basketball world by knocking off No. 3 Pueblo Central in the regional playoffs, were the smallest school to advance to the state quarterfinal round with just 574 students. The only other school with less than 1,000 students was Montezuma-Cortez, with just 850 students.

But by the time the opening night of the state championships for the 4A classification had drawn to a close, both of the Western Slope teams were gone. It wasn't surprising that all of the 4A's big boys, including Pueblo South (1,337), Adams City (1,394), Sierra (1,053) and Lewis-Palmer (1,300), had managed to survive the first round. The only surprise may have been that top-rated Mitchell (1,343) was upset by Pueblo at the Pepsi Center.

Just a note for the folks at the Colorado High School Activities Association who help decide the classifications every two years all of these teams are within 300 students of one another. That's the same difference as most of the state's other classifications. There are only two with a wider margin, and that's 4A and 5A.

In the past several years, big schools like Sierra, Liberty, Hinkely and Rampart have managed to grab the 4A's top prize. All of those schools have a student population of well over 1,000 students.

But on Thursday, Steamboat put up a valiant fight in its bid to win its first 4A title. Unfortunately, the game ended in a 57-47 loss to Lewis-Palmer. Most basketball fans in this area would agree that the deck was stacked against the local boys long before the team ever reached the Pepsi Center, but that's not the way head coach Kelly Meek or his players looked at it.

The Sailors' players and coaching staff never once used their lack of numbers as an excuse.

However, nobody, not even the board of control for CHSAA that determines the final cut, can think that small schools like Steamboat can consistently compete with larger campuses in the 4A. It's hard to imagine that schools with just more than 500 students (not those private schools like Denver Christian that select their teams based on huge talent pools) can consistently find success against schools with as many as 1,000 more students. Steamboat has proven that it can match up well with these teams every couple of years, but it is evident that in the long run, the bigger schools are going to pocket the titles.

On Thursday, Steamboat hung tough for three quarters, and despite losing starting guard Ryan Kiely to a broken tibia, made their school and community proud.

But in the fourth the Sailors' hands were tied even tighter as the starters, including Rusty Eck and Andrew Johnston, fouled out. The Sailors' underclassmen took the court in the final minutes and did their best to keep things close. But once again, in the end, size and depth won out and Lewis-Palmer and the big campuses all won out.

Coach Meek always plays down the size issue and has been a good sport since his team was moved up to 4A in the early 1990s as part of a blanket move to make all of the classifications across the state more competitive. Meek agrees that Steamboat took a hit when it was moved up to the larger classification, but he also knows that the system isn't going to change and that the days when the numbers fall into the Sailors' favor are gone.

Why?

The main reason is that the CHSAA wants five classifications with a somewhat equal number of teams in each classification somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 or 30 teams across the state in each class. They don't seem to care if the numbers in those classifications are fair just as long as the state title brackets are drawn from roughly the same number of schools.

As a result, the size of schools in the smaller 1A, 2A and 3A divisions stay pretty close. But in those bigger 4A and 5A classes, they are stretched to the max. In 4A, the number of students separating the smallest school and the biggest is 823 students. In the 5A, those numbers grow to more than 2,000. That looks pretty unfair when you consider there are less than 92 students separating the 1A division and only 116 in the 2A division.

But this is better, according to the current rules, than having 90 teams competing for one title in the 3A division. That's how it was set up prior to 1992.

So when CHSAA's board of control sits down every two years, the members try to place schools in certain classifications they feel they must put a school like Steamboat in the same class as a school like Mitchell despite a difference of just less than 700 students. The fact is that it isn't fair, but then neither is life.

That's a bit of wisdom my mother also passed on.

Luckily in Steamboat the high school teams have not let the numbers hold them down. Every year student athletes have advanced to the state level and enjoyed at least some success. I have no doubt that this small town in the Western mountains will win more state titles.

The Sailors have built a tradition of winning teams. This year the football, volleyball, cross-country, boys tennis and skiing teams all advanced to state. The girls basketball team played in the regional and the boys advanced to the state quarterfinals.

Even after losing to Lewis-Palmer, Steamboat's Eck wasn't looking for any excuses. He ended the season by saying his team was outplayed in the game and credited Lewis-Palmer, saying the Rangers just beat the Sailors to the ball in the game that's why they won.

But as I sat on the floor of the Pepsi Center watching the Sailors' players slowly run out of gas Thursday, it didn't seem like the playing field was quite level.

It seemed only too clear that Colorado's current classification system is not fair. The proof was that Steamboat was playing a school that was two times its size. A victory would have meant another monster school in the next round.

But I also think it will be difficult for the CHSAA to come up with a more balanced system when it meets a year from now. I'm sure that things such as politics will weigh heavily into the decision. The big schools and the small schools that are currently benefiting from the system will fight to keep it the same. Schools like Steamboat, which are caught in the middle, will not be able to gain enough support to change it.

It's too bad. I'm sure that some changes in the current system would mean a larger representation of Western Slope teams in the state playoffs. But until then, teams such as Steamboat, Glenwood, Battle Mountain, Moffat County and Rifle will just have to keep trying to prove that the best teams may still come in the smallest packages.

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