Boys lacrosse team heads into inaugural season

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— Ryan Hochreiter learned to hold a lacrosse stick for the first time in January, while Cooper Howard went to his first official practice three weeks ago. Almost all of the Sailors boys will play on a regular-sized lacrosse field for the first time this weekend.

It is not a rebuilding year. Rather, it is a building year for the Steamboat boys' lacrosse team as it enters its first year as a sanctioned high school sport.

With the exception of two players, Greg Packer and Jeff Albright, the more than 30 Sailors who were practicing in the high school gymnasium Thursday afternoon had never played lacrosse until this year.

Steamboat added its name last spring to the list of 35 Colorado high schools that have sanctioned boys lacrosse programs.

And, since informal practices began in January, the Steamboat players have been learning the basics, like holding sticks, catching and cradling.

"It was like a popcorn machine in the gym with balls flying everywhere," Sailors coach Bob Hiester said of the Sailors' first practice.

But, the coach said the Sailors' skills have been improving since then. On Thursday, they players practiced scoring drills with the offense passing the ball and taking shots on goal as the defense blocked sticks and scrambled to intercept the ball in midair.

At the start of the first official day of spring practice, Feb. 21, Hiester had more than 25 athletes. But that number grew as more athletes ended seasons in winter sports such as skiing, hockey and basketball.

Hiester is expecting to field a team of 30 to 35 players, many of whom are two or three-sport athletes.

"It's a nice mix. (Lacrosse) applies to a wide variety of different skills from football, hockey and soccer," Hiester said.

The roster includes talented athletes such as Sailors football player, Mike Radford, an All-State offensive lineman this past season.

Howard is another football player who came out for the team. Although he never played an official game of lacrosse, he learned the basics from his sister, Emily, who played girls' lacrosse for Steamboat.

"I thought it would be a really interesting sport to come out for," Howard said. "It's a combination of all the sports I thought that I would be interested in.

"We have hockey players, football players, soccer players and other guys that have never played a sport," he said. "It's pretty cool to get to know the different athletes you see in school."

Howard gave a speech last year to convince a board of parents and administrators to add boys' lacrosse to the school's sports slate. As a junior, Howard only wishes the sport had come two years earlier to Steamboat.

As a senior, Hochreiter wishes the same. Despite having to learn a sport that requires both stick skills and game strategy, there are about six juniors and six seniors on the team.

"It's hard to pick up (lacrosse) in a year," Hochreiter said during Thursday's practice as he handed off one of the coveted defensive lacrosse sticks the team owns.

"At the beginning, there's the different strategies: sticking with the ball, catching and throwing. You definitely need stick skills. As the season goes along, we'll get a lot of bigger plays," he said.

With 34 years of coaching experience at large Denver schools, Hiester knows what it is going to take to get the Sailors team running.

He came to Steamboat this fall enticed by the chance to teach high school math and build his third high school lacrosse program.

Hiester coached the Cherry Creek program for six years, started and coached the Smoky Hill program for 24 years and four years ago started a program at Grandview.

"First, we're learning the game," Hiester said of his team's goals. "The first time they'll be on a full field will be on Saturday."

With the Sailors still practicing in a basketball gym, making the transition to a 110- by 60-yard field could be the toughest challenge for the beginning team. The three-feet of snow blanketing the Steamboat Springs field has left the lacrosse team and every other high school spring sports team practicing indoors.

"They don't have the experience of the field. They haven't even seen one yet," Hiester said. "They have to learn how to use space."

This weekend, Steamboat will scrimmage Wheat Ridge and Golden in Denver, where the Sailors will experience, for the first time, playing on a regulation field.

In its inaugural season, Steamboat Springs will have a combination schedule, meaning the Sailors will compete against both junior varsity and varsity teams.

Similar to the girls' lacrosse team, the boys fall into the Foothills Conference, which includes Kent Denver, Englewood, Golden, Monarch, Wheat Ridge and Fort Collins.

But, because Steamboat is easing into a varsity schedule, the Sailors will not play all of their league opposition this year and will not be able to qualify for the state playoffs.

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