Steamboat Springs The Steamboat Sailors volleyball team is entering its toughest league game Saturday with one of its top hitters down and coming off a weekend that produced the team's closest matches of the season.
Traditional league foe Rifle will go up against the 9-0 Steamboat team that is missing its right side opposite hitter, Bayli Stillwell.
Late into practice a week ago Stillwell badly sprained her ankle and left a crucial position vacant before heading into last weekend's competition against league opponents Delta and Palisade.
"She has a nice swing and quite a bit of offense that was tough to overcome that quickly," Sailors coach Wendy Hall said.
Stillwell will still be out of commission when Steamboat travels to Rifle, a team that usually splits its league games with the Sailors.
"Going into this weekend, the team is our No. 1 league rival," Hall said. "It's been historically their absolute mission to beat us."
For the first time in four years, Lisa Samuelson will be absent from the Bear's lineup. Samuelson, who graduated last season, was Rifle's All-State top offensive hitter.
Even with Samuelson gone, Hall is expecting Rifle to come out with a strong offense and solid serving. In the past, Hall said the Bears' weakness comes in ball control and serve reception.
But with the loss of longtime coach Beth Sass and most of last year's starting lineup, many questions remain unanswered before Saturday's game.
This week in practice, the Sailors have been working on a new lineup that has sophomore Katie Liefer in for Stillwell, who is expecting to return for the Glenwood Springs game.
"The good news is that we worked the practices with Katie. And I hope that makes us more prepared and comfortable," Hall said.
It took the Sailors one game to work out the kinks left by Stillwell's absence in their Friday night matchup against Delta. The Sailors lost their first game of the season, 12-15, but came back to beat the Panthers 15-2 and 15-8.
Hall said the Sailors played in a hostile gym that had fans yelling insults at her players. Halfway through the match, the officials stopped the game to ask the administrators to tell the crowd to settle down.
"I was pretty upset," Hall said. "The girls handled it better than me. They didn't look over there. I didn't see distraction in their faces."
The Sailors saw their closest match on Saturday when they faced the Palisade Bulldogs on the road. It took three games for the Sailors to beat the Bulldogs with a 15-9 win in the first game and a 15-13 loss in the second.
The Sailors battled the Bulldogs to a 16-14 win in the deciding game. In the second and third games, the Sailors were up 9-2 and 9-4, but let the Bulldogs come back to force them into close games.
Palisade's biggest weapon was its defense which forced Steamboat into long point rallies.
"I think we're very fortunate to get out of Palisade with a win," Hall said. "I've been waiting for the team that was going to take us into the long, long rallies."
Hall said the Bulldogs didn't have a powerful offense but were able to keep the ball in play with solid digging and blocking. She also said her team wasn't able to find the floor as they swung for 130 times and had only 29 kills.
Middle blocker Katie Carter led the team in kills with 29 for the weekend. Outside hitter Allison Griffing followed with 14 kills.
Once again, Abby Fritz came up big for her team in serving, finishing the weekend with 35 successful serves for 35 attempts.
Five of those serves came in the final game against Palisade when she stepped up to the line with the score 14-11, finishing the game off to win 16-14.
"She went the whole weekend without missing a serve," Hall said. "That's what we need out of everybody."