Steamboat Springs The senior members of the Steamboat Springs girls soccer team huddled together in their grass-stained uniforms, holding real flowers, trying to form smiles.
All seasons end with team pictures and group hugs, and with a 3-1 loss to Legacy on Saturday, the Sailors' year concluded no differently. It just ended too soon.
"We could have beaten them," said both Lia Utu and Julie Wernig.
Losing is made tougher when a team believes they could have won, and Steamboat had its chances. It just was unable to put the soccer ball between the posts. There was some uncertainty as to how the Sailors would respond at the outset of Saturday's game following the devastating league-loss to Glenwood Tuesday.
Those questions were answered quickly, as the Sailors came out and had little trouble controlling the pace of the game at midfield. The Lightning had possession of the ball in their zone just three times in the first eight minutes.
Legacy's first shot on goal came off Alese Dickhaut's free kick at the 14:00-mark, but Sailors goalie Kelly Asbury collected it in her gloves
"They came out very nervous," said head coach Jeff Good. "They tend to give the others a lot of respect sometimes too much. I told them if we were going to make a mistake, let's make it on our side."
The Lightning appeared to be ignoring their coach's advice, allowing Steamboat two decent opportunities to score around the 15:00- and 17:00-marks. The first came when a series of beautiful touch passes culminated in a shot high and wide. Several minutes later, senior Andrea Len found herself at the top of the box looking to pass when the ball was stolen away by Legacy defenders.
The patchwork play of their defense may have sparked the Lightning on offense. Around 22 minutes in, Steamboat's defenders got caught in Legacy's right corner and were unable to clear. Freshman Kara Stephens came up with the loose ball and found sophomore Robin Alexander in the center of the box for the score.
About eight minutes later, the Sailors once again had two great chances on goal. From the far left sideline, senior Julie Wernig sent a high-flying curveball of a kick toward the back of the net, but Legacy goalie Christy Smith jumped up from the pack and punched the goal over the net and out of bounds.
The ensuing corner kick came off the foot of junior Nikki Garth to Len, who sent it back to Garth for the shot, but Smith stopped it as well.
"They were a very strong athletic team," Steamboat coach Rob Bohlmann said. "Their direct style is very effective, and it's tough to create and get in an offensive rhythm."
Good said about 50 percent of the time Smith comes up with a big save, as she did in the first half against the Sailors. The other half of the time his defense gets back into position just in time to jab the ball out of the zone to prevent a score.
The possessions went back and forth to open the second half before Legacy built upon its 1-0 lead around 10 minutes in when Alexander found freshmen striker Angela O'Loughlin on her right for what proved to be the game-winning goal.
Eleven minutes later, Alexander sealed the Sailors' fate when she connected on a penalty kick. There was little Asbury could do as the senior guessed low as Alexander went high.
The second-half poise and pressure of his team pleased Good, considering the program is in its second year of existence and has zero seniors.
"You gain valuable experience when you have to go to other places and win," he said. "You can't coach it or teach it. Last year we lost in the quarterfinals to Mullen there. That experience helped us (Saturday)."
But the veterans of Steamboat refused to quit or be shutout.
Around the midway point of the second half, Wernig's high-powered corner kick resulted in two shot attempts the first failed but the rebound attempt off Utu's foot dribbled past Smith into the bottom of the net. Twenty minutes and several shots on goal later, however, the referee blew his whistle for the final time, sending Legacy onto the round of 16 and many Steamboat players to tears.
"We just couldn't put it away," Wernig said. "They got some lucky breaks."
But Bohlmann was pleased with how in just three days his team had gathered itself and come ready to play from whistle to whistle.
"We just didn't make the most of our opportunities in the penalty area," he said.
After the final postgame huddle around goal for the season, the players began to gather their belongings and pose for camera-toting parents. Only one group of seniors in Class 4A will end their career with a victory. Saturday five girls saw their dream end.
"They are a tremendous group," Bohlmann said. "The legacy they leave behind is one of a high standard, and it's something for the group behind to build off."