Sailors hone skills during summer

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— It's the sound of a baseball colliding with leather or aluminum, the thrill of racing around third en route to a score and his deep-rooted love of the game that has brought Sean Murphy to the diamond most of his life.

But like so many players his age, the high school student has become accustomed to spending his summers playing toss with buddies, taking a few swings at the ball in the adult recreational league and dreaming about the start of the high school season -- which looms 10 months down the road.

Too old for Little League and without an area Legion League to hone his skills during the off-season, Murphy and the others members of Steamboat's fledgling baseball program have been forced to sit back and wait during summers past.

Not this year.

For the first time in several seasons, Murphy and several of his teammates on the Steamboat Springs High School baseball team have been exposed to regularly scheduled games against other high school players during the off season.

This summer, 16 high school baseball players (11 who will play for Steamboat next fall) have doubled the number of games they play by taking part in the summer program.

"They've tried to play summer ball in the past," coach Gary Engle said. "But it's never worked out."

This season, Engle scheduled 22 games over the course of the summer and by late next week the Steamboat team will have played 20 of them. He said a lack of players forced the Steamboat team to forfeit two of its scheduled games earlier this year.

"It's a hard thing," Murphy said. "We have five or six players who show up for most of the games, but a lot of the other players have summer jobs or just want to do something else."

But Murphy and teammate Kevin Martin, two players who expect to return to the high school team next year for their senior years, are part of a diehard core that has made every game.

"In the past, high school baseball here in Steamboat meant 20 games in the spring and then 10 months off," Murphy said. "Thanks to the summer program, we've been able to play a lot more ball this summer. I think it's improved my game 40 or 50 percent."

Over the past two months the team has posted a 7-9 record, and Murphy hopes the team can pick up a few more wins down the stretch.

The team is scheduled to play a doubleheader Saturday (noon and 2:30 p.m.) at Emerald Park against Middle Park's B team. The team will wrap up the season next Tuesday in Oak Creek against Summit County. That game is scheduled for 4 p.m.

"We've been very competitive this summer," Engle said. "We've been in just about every game and lost several by just one run."

Engle doesn't try to hide his motives for organizing the summer league team.

He wants to improve the quality of baseball and the high school program in particular.

The only way to reach the team's goals is by getting his players more experience during the summer, he said.

He admits that finding games for players this age is not easy, but he feels like it's the only way the high school program will ever make it to the next level.

Engle hopes the summer program will continue to grow next year and that Steamboat and several other mountain towns can form a mountain division of Legion League baseball in Colorado.

The mountain teams would play in their own division for most of the summer, avoiding long trips to Denver, and would then fall into some sort of playoff format at the end of the season.

"I think we would have more players come out if we were playing for something." Murphy said. "It would be great to have playoffs at the end of the summer and be able to play in some sort of championship."

For now, Engle said he is happy to make small steps toward his ultimate goal of bringing Legion baseball to the Yampa Valley.

"I got kind of a late start this season," Engle said. "But I'm hoping that we will be able to offer these kids something more in the future."

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