Craig Take notice. The Steamboat Springs volleyball team has officially been challenged, and it responded in a fashion befitting a team on a mission.
Playing in what was arguably the toughest district in the state, Steamboat was forced to square off against Palisade, Glenwood Springs and Cortez on one Saturday afternoon, and that was just to advance to next weekend's regionals.
After disposing of Palisade in pool play and ending Glenwood Springs' season in the semifinals, Steamboat met Cortez in the championship, winning 15-13, 15-8 to claim the District 6 title Saturday. Cortez will also advance to regionals.
To call the Panthers a district nemesis would be fair considering the Sailors have lost to Cortez the past two seasons in the tournament, and the Panthers once again proved why they have given the Sailors fits in recent years, challenging them at the net and in the back row from the get-go.
One trademark of Steamboat this year, however, is the ability to play sideout volleyball. The opponent may get a kill, make a spectacular defensive save or put up a tough block, but the Sailors are going to get the serve back, and chances are, the opponent has scored once or twice if at all.
Senior Katie Carter said that's a huge difference between this year's team and last year's squad.
"Last year we would have huge lapses," Carter said. "That was our goal, to not have lapses this year."
Steamboat coach Wendy Hall designs practices to encourage her team to make runs while thwarting those of opponents. As her team scrimmages against each other, one side must win two times before getting a point. On the opposite side, the team must lose twice before surrendering the ball. In other words, since Steamboat is conditioned to sideout twice in row in practice, it makes it much easier to have to do it only once in games.
On the flip side, because the Sailors are forced to string together rallies and volleys to score one point in practice, during games they often score one or two with every server. Often times, an opponent gets deflated and it leads to more.
Take the championship game against Cortez, for example.
After falling behind 9-4, Cortez slowly worked its way back to tie the game. Steamboat, however, never relinquished the lead, pulling ahead again to 13-11. One Carter kill made it 14-11. The teams exchanged six sideouts before the Sailors' Allison Griffing stepped behind the line and delivered a serve that was never returned, as Steamboat won 15-13.
The second game, however, wasn't as close. The Sailors jumped out to a quick 5-0 lead. The Panthers pulled to within two before Steamboat surged ahead again, 9-3. Cortez closed to within three before the Sailors put more distance between themselves and the Panthers, 14-8. On the second match point, senior Becca Gray back set to senior Bayli Stillwell, who drilled the ball between two blockers and into the floor.
"The only thing that went through my head was we are going to win now," Stillwell said.
In the Cortez match, Carter had a team-high 14 kills and one block. Senior Abby Fritz had nine kills, while Stillwell had eight kills, including the match-winner. She also had four blocks. Senior Lizzie Sack had six kills, all in the first game, and two blocks, while Griffing had four kills and five blocks. Gray had 38 assists. Fritz and senior Val Finch were perfect from the service line.
Following the win and celebration, Hall was presented the district plaque and it was passed around to the team members. Amazingly, Hall said she believes the Sailors have more state qualification plaques than they do district championships, proving once again why Saturday meant so much to the team.
"We played awesome," Stillwell said. "We came and did what we wanted to do."
If the plaque was not enough, the Western Slope regular-season awards were announced, and all seven Steamboat seniors earned recognition. Carter, Fritz, Finch, Griffing, Gray and Stillwell made the first-team, while Sack made honorable mention. Hall earned Coach of the Year honors, while Carter was, in Hall's words, the "slam dunk" choice for Player of the Year.
"There was not another kid that came in close," Hall said.
The league coaches vote for all the awards, and Carter said she wasn't surprised Hall and the entire team was honored. After all, they went 12-0 in league play.
"I totally expected it," Carter said. "We deserved it."
Admittedly excited and relieved, Steamboat advances to a four-team regional. The top two will then head to the state tournament Nov. 8 and 9 in Denver. With an overall record of 23-1 and a district title to boot, Hall said her team has done all it can to secure the chance to host one of four regionals.
Now, it is up to the seeding committee to decide. The Sailors should know where they are headed early this week.
"I think we would have a pretty good chance," Hall said. "But like I told the team, I don't care where we go. We'll be ready to play regardless."