Now and Then

Volleyball team grows into champions

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Quick, knock on wood because football coach Mark Drake just said the "S" word.

For the record, Katie Carter and Abby Fritz aren't superstitious, but whenever the word "state" is mentioned in their presence, the two put a fist to a table or desk for good measure.

It's caught on because the Sailors don't want to risk anything this time around.

Last year's loss to Alamosa in a tiebreaker cost Steamboat a trip to the state tournament. The girls don't like to think about it. Coach Wendy Hall admits it even took her a while to get over it.

This season is different, though. Even opposing coaches can tell.

"I noticed this year how much more confident they are in themselves," Glenwood Springs coach Michelle Guillot said about the Sailors. "They are a high-caliber, state-bound team."

Knock on wood.

"They've improved greatly," Guillot added. "They seem to have bonded this year. A team that is friends all year long is a great asset to have."

But it isn't like the Steamboat seven Carter, Fritz, Val Finch, Becca Gray, Allison Griffing, Lizzie Sack and Bayli Stillwell recently became friends. They've known each other since middle school, or earlier in some cases.

"I've never played with anyone else," Sack said.

That's why it's hard for them to imagine it ending. The girls have been tight for years, so it hurts to talk about being done. Hall is counting down the practices, and it nearly brings her to tears.

"It's such a privilege to coach them," she said.

Hall said offseason dedication in the weight room, in jump training and in open gyms has elevated each player's game, creating a more dangerous team.

"It's hard not to enjoy watching them," Hall said. "They are a heckuva lot better this year than they were last year."

Drake, a Steamboat coach for 34 years, said it goes beyond that.

"This is the best I've seen," he said. "They're awesome."

Then he predicted they would make it to state.

Knock on wood.

One day at a time

This year's motto is "Respect All, Fear None."

Steamboat doesn't overlook anyone. Hall said her team doesn't look past practices, and they aren't about to fold. The mental toughness is what separates them from the past.

Fritz said she thought this team was something special last season. Finch said it was solidified when the Sailors went to Fort Morgan at the beginning of September and swept through a slate of supposedly better Front Range squads.

"We wanted to prove something to those schools," Finch said.

The Sailors have since notched a No. 3 ranking in Class 4A.

But Steamboat found itself in a two-match slump shortly thereafter. A loss to Middle Park on Sept. 10 raised some eyes.

"After we lost, we said good teams only get one," Carter said.

The Sailors haven't regressed since, reeling off 12 straight wins, including an impressive victory over then-No. 5 Glenwood Springs on Sept. 26.

On Saturday, the teams meet again at 1:30 p.m. at Steamboat Springs High School as the Sailors go for the outright league title.

It will be their final regular-season game as Sailors. It may be the last time they ever play competitively in Steamboat with postseason host sites yet to be determined.

"I remember going to boys basketball games, and they were always full," Carter said. "I kept thinking, if just one of our games was like this, I'd remember it for the rest of my life."

Gray baby-sits for two little girls. They'll be there. One time they were late to a match, and they cried.

Sack has a younger friend that always watches and calls afterward to say congratulations. She's coming.

Carter said a mother with two younger girls too shy to speak came up to her recently. One girl was excited because both she and Carter played on the B team in middle school, and the mom wanted to say something.

They'll likely be there as well.

The girls want everyone to come, but on Saturday they are playing for one.

"Wendy, thank you so much for everything you do for us," the seven said. "We want to beat Glenwood for you."

The places they will go

Physician of poetry Dr. Seuss wrote "Oh, the Places You Will Go" in 1990, when the Steamboat players were not yet in school. It's an ode to seniors and the future that might as well have been written to the Sailors. Thirty-six kids went out for eighth-grade volleyball. Seven made it to today.

The grins haven't changed much. Neither have the faces. But the places they have come from and the places they will go are different. Some will continue playing, but all will scatter. Finch isn't sure where she's headed. Carter is committed to UCLA. Fritz wants to go to California, too. Sack loves New York, and Stillwell might join her. Griffing has hopes of joining the Naval Academy. Gray is heading to Spain.

But the season isn't over yet, and Hall hopes her team reins in the emotions Saturday. They still have work to do.

"There are points to be scored," Seuss writes. "There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)"

But Stillwell believes guarantees are thrown out in volleyball matches. The Sailors learned that the hard way last year.

So they knock on wood now to push luck along. But come Saturday and through the postseason, if Steamboat is to win, its court play will be the sole reason.

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