Steamboat Springs This season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for both Moffat County and Steamboat.
The Steamboat Springs boys basketball team lost four starters. The Moffat County boys basketball team lost its top scorer and rebounder.
Far from "rebuilding," however, the teams will take the court Friday in Craig with a combined 17-3 overall record. Both are also undefeated in Western Slope play, setting up the first of two highly anticipated regular-season contests between the league rivals.
"I think particularly this year there is a lot of respect between the teams since we are at the top of the league," Bulldogs coach Mike LeWarne said.
A Craig native, LeWarne is familiar with the rivalry. He played basketball for Moffat County, and Steamboat coach Kelly Meek was roaming the sidelines then, just as he does now.
Meek has his squad (9-1) on an eight-game winning streak after it dropped the second game of the year against Green River, Wyo., back on Dec. 6.
Moffat County's two losses (8-2) came in a Las Vegas tournament a month ago.
A Steamboat Shootout title in the second tournament of the season provided the Sailors with the confidence they need to face anyone, senior Cody Sherrill said.
But an invincible attitude hasn't emerged in the locker room, junior Kyle Re said. Overconfidence hasn't developed either.
Both Sherrill and Re said Meek has stressed the importance of respecting every opponent. No extra lectures were needed this week. Last season, the teams split during the regular season, and the Bulldogs beat the Sailors handily in Craig.
But Sherrill still feels the path to the Western Slope title goes through Steamboat.
"That's why teams come after us," he said. "And that's the best feeling."
Despite being a road game, the Sailors are looking forward to the trip to Craig. Steamboat traditionally travels well, and the players enjoy the atmosphere and acoustics in Moffat County's larger gym.
"We love it," Re said. "It's the best league game of the year."
But Moffat County's goal is to limit the amount of red and white in the stands Friday.
"We're hoping to set a field house record with the most people dressed in royal blue and white," LeWarne said. "This team responds well to the crowd, and they'll keep us fueled."
Energy is something LeWarne firmly believes his team will need against Steamboat.
"Composure is important because it is going to be a fast-paced, physical game," he said. "We can't get into foul trouble. We're at our best in a full-court game so we want to be able to dictate the pace without getting too deep into the bench."
Depth isn't a trait the Sailors are blessed with either, but recent play from several of the Steamboat reserves has truly sparked the team.
Re and juniors Devon Borvansky and Nick Monterotti have each provided crucial minutes for Steamboat, and Sherrill, a starter, said every bit has helped the entire team gel.
"Everybody's growing and getting better," Sherrill said.
The ultimate test for both teams comes Friday.
Moffat County will counter Steamboat shooters John Daschle and Cory Moore with senior guard Pablo Loya and tough defender Joe Padon.
Down low, the Sailors will feature Sherrill and sophomore Cameron Burney, while the Bulldogs will look to junior Anthony Loughran.
Tipoff is about 7:30 p.m. at Moffat County High School.
The girls varsity game, featuring two of the top teams in the Western Slope as well, begins at 6 p.m.
-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org