Playoff berth likely hinges on tonight's grand finale

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— It started in middle school before Will Zimmerer stepped between the lines.

Craig was the closest town in the league, so it made sense when he heard Moffat County was Steamboat's biggest rival. Then Zimmerer and his teammates actually faced the Bulldogs on the football field.

He'll tell you the rest.

"We just don't like them," Zimmerer said. "They do things to us, and we probably do things to them, and we just don't get along."

It would be in poor taste to print what some of those "things" are, but Zimmerer said this year is different. There will be no pre-game trash thrown from the mouths of the Sailors or pre-game signs drawn by the Bulldogs challenging the Sailors' manhood.

The rivalry is as intense as ever, but the winner of tonight's game likely makes the playoffs as the third seed behind Rifle and Palisade. The loser likely will not, and no player or coach wants to be the one on the bulletin board inspiring the other to victory.

"I bet this year, when they're better than they have been, they'll probably just bring it and won't have those signs," Zimmerer said. "It'll change a little bit because they're improved."

Steamboat (5-3 overall, 3-2 in the league) enters tonight's league finale at 7 p.m. at Gardner Field off an embarrassing 34-0 performance at Rifle. Moffat County (5-3, 3-1), however, is one week removed from embarrassing Cortez, 47-0.

In all fairness, Rifle is undefeated.

Cortez has yet to win a league game.

In all fairness, several Steamboat starters were coming back from injuries and it showed with regards to offensive rhythm, which contributed to costly turnovers.

"We've switched around so much we haven't gotten comfortable with the timing," senior Zach Forcum said. "We'll be back this week. We've had a good week of practice, and I think we'll give them a good show. "

Not if the Bulldogs have anything to say about it. With one league game remaining at Palisade, Moffat County may have more room for error, but that isn't how first-year coach Kip Hafey sees it, especially since Palisade nearly defeated Rifle.

The Bulldogs are coming to win, weakening the Sailors' hopes for a playoff spot, while assuring their berth.

"We're not focusing on it being Steamboat," Hafey said. "It's another opponent in our way that's keeping us from reaching the playoffs. We're this far and going on our ninth week of games and that excitement is still there."

It has shown no signs of slowing down either. Moffat County hasn't made the playoffs since 1999 and is just 3-2 in the past five meetings against Steamboat Springs after going 7-3 from 1990 to 1997.

Hafey's mixed up the offense a bit, spreading it out and passing it more. He said trust in a new system from him, through his assistants and down to the last boy on the bench is largely responsible for the success.

"I didn't know how they would respond," Hafey said. "But I had 100 percent faith in my assistants, and if the coaches believed in it the kids would believe in it, too."

Steamboat is leaning on each other as well, and tonight presents a unique opportunity for the Sailors. For the first time all season, nearly everyone will be in uniform and ready to go at the positions originally assigned to him at the beginning of the season. Granted, Drake would have liked this to happen several games ago, but he'll take anything at this point.

"We got them all," he said. "They're athletes and competitors and they'll find a way to get the job done."

Considering those returning from injury are seniors, it seems a safer bet to assume the Sailors will be ready to play. As the final home game this season, the seniors will be recognized prior to kickoff.

"The fact that it's senior night against our biggest rival," Forcum said. "You couldn't ask for anything more."

Except for maybe a win. Drake said senior night is always a special night for him because he gets to watch these kids mature as people and players and knows almost all will be done with football upon the completion of the season.

He just hopes he has provided this class, like all others, with something to remember.

The luck of the league draw has given the seniors the chance to go out at home victorious against Moffat County, the first team they learned it was important to beat. Finding motivation hasn't been hard this week. Then again, Drake said this class has never struggled to get ready to play.

"They're slapstick half the time," Drake said. "But when it's time to settle down and turn it on, they go. Going into the season we had a lot of inexperienced players, and for us to be at a point where we still have an opportunity to get into the playoffs, pending this game, has been a great tribute to them."

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