Steamboat Springs Despite only a week's worth of practice, it didn't take long for Steamboat's girls basketball team to get down to business.
On Tuesday, while the Sailors were working on passing and shooting drills, coaches were stressing an even greater matter at hand: finding a way back to the regional tournament.
For the first time in Sailors coach Bruce Alston's seven-year head coaching career, Steamboat qualified for the regional playoff tournament last year. And that is something the team aims to repeat.
"We hope to get further than we got last year," guard Jennifer Weber said of the 57-40 loss to Lewis-Palmer that knocked Steamboat out of the playoffs.
But, with the exception of one returning starter senior Emily Hines it will be a new team that will begin the road to the regional tournament. Hines, a guard, is the only starting survivor out of last year's 13-10 team. She will be the leader of a team that returns two seniors, six juniors and four sophomores.
Even with the graduation of three starters (guard Natalie Muth, forward Ashley Rogers and center Brienna Combs), Alston had counted on the valuable experience of underclassmen Jannike Combs (guard) and post Katie Carter to help guide the Sailors. But, less then nine months later, the two all-conference honorable mentions are absent from the lineup.
Combs, who tore down a large portion of the team's boards last year, moved to the Front Range while Carter, a constant scoring threat, has decided to dedicate the winter months to club volleyball. Carter is a starter for the school's varsity volleyball team.
Although Alston is left with trying to fill the hole of four all-conference honorees, he said that at this point his team is further along than the one that won two district games last year to advance to the regional tournament.
"I think we are ahead of last year as to what we are doing," Alston said. "Zone offense,
man-to-man defense, press break a number of things are in place."
Helping to bring those things together are seniors Hines and point guard Jessica Flores, and juniors Bayli Stillwell (forward), 5-foot-9 guard Jennifer Weber and point guard Anya Allen.
Although the team lacks varsity experience as a whole, Alston and Hines both said the players gained valuable experience when they went up against 5A schools in team camps this summer. That summer experience included a game against Rifle, which Hines said Steamboat won.
"Everybody got varsity experience. They got to deal with nervousness and stuff like that, which helps a lot," Hines said. "We had experience playing together. Now, we know how the team works."
With Carter out of the lineup, the Sailors lost some heighth, which Hines said might have the team switching its offense to a one-post four-perimeter style.
Stillwell, who is 5-foot-11 inches tall, is the team's most towering presence in the Sailors' tentative starting lineup, though heighth will not be the strength of the Sailors this season. Alston is counting on team speed to win games.
Depth is also key, he said.
Alston is also counting on a team that works well together, something he said will outweigh the challenges of a young ball club.
"We're more of a cohesive team. In the long run, we'll be better," Alston said.
"There's not a prima donna in the group. They all give each other equal time."