Sailors in control

Steamboat wins three matches to earn spot in semis

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— The bracket has room for four, but only two lines are full. And Steamboat Springs is written on one.

The Sailors won three matches on Friday to assure themselves of a top finish in Pool II and a spot in today's semifinals. Despite losing to Steamboat, Lewis-Palmer will advance as the other team from the second pool.

Either team's opponent, however, is unknown as of Friday night, considering Pool I is a mess.

Steamboat coach Wendy Hall isn't worried that her team doesn't know its semifinal opponent. Actually, if Greeley West upsets Pueblo West this morning, three teams Greeley West, Brighton and Fort Morgan will have to fight for two spots.

"I hope it's a battle," Hall said. "We will be ready to play whoever. We have two games left, but we have to get through the first to get to the second."

The one-game-at-a-time mentality proved crucial in the Sailors reaching this point. Steamboat opened the state tournament against Windsor visibly nervous. The adrenaline was pumping and mistakes were the result, but the Sailors rebounded from a 6-2 deficit to win 15-10 in Game 1 before taking the second game and the match 15-13.

The second game told a similar story, except Steamboat found itself down 13-9 and just two points away from losing its first game since September.

The Sailors, as they have shown a tendency to do this season, came back gradually, capitalizing on three Windsor hitting errors to eventually defeat the No. 7 seed.

"We had a few lapses today," senior Val Finch said. "But we came back, and that's been one of our strengths this year."

On Friday, it may have been the most important strength. All season long, the Sailors have said their mental toughness separates them from other teams and themselves from last year. If down, they don't panic, they don't point fingers, they control what they can how they play.

And Summit, Steamboat's second opponent of the day, tested the team like none other since Middle Park back in September because Summit found a way to beat Steamboat.

It was only one game, 18-16, but the Sailors haven't been down in two months, so how they responded figured to be a major story line on the Class 4A side.

If Steamboat was to lose, the chances of advancing into the semifinal round decreases. Should it win, it might dictate how the rest of the tournament unfolds.

Naturally, the Sailors won 15-6, 15-3, turning Summit, a 24-3 team, into one of its hapless Western Slope opponents.

"I thought we made some great adjustments in the second game, and then we were totally controlling the tempo," Hall said. "Volleyball is a game of momentum. You're not always going to have it and you have to find a way to get it back."

Of course it doesn't hurt to have Katie Carter on your side. The senior outside hitter notched a season-high 31 kills against Summit, preventing the Tigers from regaining any momentum Hall felt they had after the first game.

"You could really see her leading this team," Hall said. "She's not intimidated by anybody."

And, seemingly, neither are the Sailors.

Despite knowing it was advancing into the semifinals, Steamboat was determined to remain the only 4A team with one loss heading into today's play. To do that, it had to beat Lewis-Palmer, the defending state champions.

Two games later, the Sailors (29-1) are right where they want to be, winning 15-11, 15-7.

Finch confessed she was a little nervous heading into the final match against the Rangers. They are tall, powerful and had kicked Windsor and Summit heading into the match with Steamboat.

Ahead 10-4, it appeared as if Lewis-Palmer was on its way to kicking Steamboat as well. It's one thing to come back against the two previous opponents; it's another to come back for a third time against the defending champions.

But there's something about Allison Griffing and the service line that works wonders for the Sailors. She may not be Steamboat's most consistent server but she is its most dangerous one.

Sometimes she offers up a floater. Sometimes she offers up a line-drive knuckler. Usually she provides a spark and some points. Friday, she served seven straight, lifting the Sailors to the 15-11 opening game win.

The Sailors took the second, 15-7, but it wasn't even that close. Steamboat was up 11-0 before letting Lewis-Palmer breathe.

In the three matches combined, Carter had 58 kills and nine blocks. Bayli Stillwell had 29 kills and six blocks. Lizzie Sack led the team with 14 blocks and chipped in with 11 kills. Abby Fritz had 19 kills and six blocks, while Griffing had four kills and seven blocks. Gray had 110 assists, including 55 in the three-game match against Summit, tying Niwot's Marla Bohling and Cortez's Emily Harclerode for second all-time. The match record is 58 set by Deni Bullard from Cotopaxi in 1989.

"I'm just excited to play tomorrow," Finch said. "I'm ready to play."

Steamboat's semifinal match against an opponent yet to be determined follows the conclusion of pool play, any tiebreakers that need to be played and the first semifinal between Lewis-Palmer and a team yet to be determined. Hall estimated that to be around 11 a.m.

To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or email mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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