A crushing defeat

State championship slips out of Sailors' grasp

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— Morgan, Bethany and Lindsay Moss never saw the Steamboat Springs volleyball team play until the state tournament.

They are three youngsters from Fowler and their mom is a volleyball official. She brought them to the state tournament Friday night, and they watched the Sailors go undefeated in pool play.

On Saturday, Bethany and Lindsay Moss led the team onto the state championship court, holding a small yellow sign letting the Denver Coliseum crowd know Steamboat was shooting for the state's first-ever state title and their ultimate team goal.

But after Steamboat fell 14-16, 15-12, 12-15 to Lewis-Palmer in the Class 4A title match, the girls didn't seek out autographs, hugs or pictures from the Rangers. The girls wanted to visit with the Sailors.

"We like their attitude," the young Moss girls said. One even posed with outside hitter Katie Carter. She came up to Carter's waist. The girls' mother officiated a Steamboat match on Friday night and said regardless of Saturday's loss, she believed the Sailors won and lost with class, and that's why she brought her girls to meet the players from Steamboat.

With tears running down their cheeks and off their chins, the Sailors signed everything the girls wanted, breaking an occasional smile to help ease the pain.

Steamboat came to win the state tournament and had a chance, but the Sailors came up short. Instead of bringing a gold volleyball trophy home to Steamboat, they captured second place, finishing a remarkable 30-2. Only two teams in Colorado history have done better with 31 wins.

"I'm thrilled with our season," coach Wendy Hall said. "How can I not be?"

Hall said the difference between Saturday night's loss to Lewis-Palmer and Friday night's pool match win over the same Rangers team was that they weren't the same team in the finals.

Steamboat won 15-11, 15-7 Friday night. On Saturday, they dropped a three-game heartbreaker that was easily the best match of all five finals.

"I thought their kids really stepped to the plate," Hall said. "Some that we didn't see Friday night." First-year coach Susan Odenbaugh said some Ranger players came to play for the first time all year in the finals.

"Our goal was to be a team all season and play a whole match as a team," she said. "We hadn't done that all season long, and what better time to do it than the state championship match?"

Odenbaugh, who served as an assistant for 13 years before taking over the head coaching job, admitted her team was superstitious, so she used Friday's loss to ease any nerves her team had. Last year, Lewis-Palmer lost handily to Fort Morgan in pool play before meeting again in the finals. Lewis-Palmer ended up winning. The scenario was the same, and the results ended the same this year as well.

Asked if the two best teams in 4A met on the court Saturday night, Amy Bladow, Lewis-Palmer's star middle blocker, said, "Oh, yes, absolutely."

The difference was Steamboat made more mistakes than Lewis-Palmer Saturday night. Bladow said the Rangers wanted to cut down on their mistakes in addition to consistently putting a double block up on Carter and shutting down opposite Bayli Stillwell if possible.

"They showed up much stronger," Stillwell said. "They definitely shut me down."

But Stillwell said Steamboat still could have won. In hindsight, it may have. On game point, in the first game, the ball was heading to the floor after Carter blocked setter Mackie Mutz. The game went to Steamboat, but the down official the one on the floor by the net blew the play dead, believing the Rangers were out of rotation. They weren't, so the point was replayed. The Sailors ended up losing 14-16. They won the second and then dropped the third.

Hall said normally an official waits until the play takes form to see where everyone's actually at before blowing the whistle. That didn't happen.

"You can always go back and call it," Hall said. "That's the way to do it."

Still, she noted there is human error in every sport, including volleyball. On Saturday, the officials made some, but her team made some uncharacteristic ones, too, particularly in the service game in the final game.

For the match, Carter, despite being targeted, had 32 kills and five blocks. Abby Fritz and Stillwell each had nine kills, while Lizzie Sack, Allison Griffing and Stillwell contributed five, four and four blocks each.

"What I'm going to remember most is the journey to this weekend," she said. "To get here, the challenges, the unity, the camaraderie, but most of all the friendships. I have two sisters, but I have six more. That's how close we are." She was referring to the seven seniors Val Finch, Carter, Griffing, Stillwell, Sack, Gray and herself a team that held a special place for many fans in the Coliseum. Greeley West, a team Steamboat beat in regionals, stayed after it was eliminated to cheer on the Sailors. From the stands, the Spartans held up signs to show support.

Hall was the last one in the bowels of the Coliseum Saturday night, answering questions about what Lewis-Palmer did to win or what Steamboat did to lose, but it isn't the result that hurts her or the team the most.

"It's harder to believe it's over," she said.

A janitor sweeping up some paper and perhaps leftover tears couldn't help but overhear Hall.

"Good game, coach," he said. "I was cheering for you, too."

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