Game day: Sailors host Tigers

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The Western Slope League is poised to make noise this postseason.

Four teams -- Palisade, Steamboat Springs, Moffat County and Rifle -- open the playoffs today with a combined record of 32-8. With Palisade and Rifle meeting in the opening round, one Western Slope team is certain to advance to next week.

But in Steamboat and Moffat County, the Western Slope boasts another two teams with hopes of an extended playoff run.

Steamboat hosts Sterling at 1 p.m. today, while Moffat County travels to Berthoud.

"It would be nice to have all three advance and see what happens," Sailors coach Mark Drake said.

All season, the top four Western Slope teams have leapfrogged each other in the state polls and league standings, jockeying for the best playoff seed possible. Palisade took the top spot, followed in order by Steamboat, Moffat County and wild-card Rifle.

It is no secret that quality football has been played on this side of the Continental Divide during the past three months. Before taking turns beating each other, the Western Slope teams seemingly beat everyone else in Colorado, going a combined 7-0 against teams from the Class 3A Tri-Valley and Southern leagues during the nonleague season.

But as any coach or player will note, those wins were then, and the playoffs are now.

"I'm glad we're hosting," Drake said. "I'm glad Sterling has to make the long trip up here and spend the night. We have the situation the way we want it, and we have to make sure we take care of business."

Sterling didn't have a favorable nonleague record (0-3), but coach Mark Bauder is more concerned with what the Tigers learn than how many wins they garner during August and early September.

"I've done it both ways," Bauder said about scheduling tough versus easy nonleague teams. "I like our kids to play tough teams and give them a true idea on where they stand. It gets them ready for the competition in our league."

Sterling went on to finish 5-2 in the Tri-Valley League, wrapping up the regular season on a three-game winning streak and allowing just seven points in the final three games.

Sterling has been equally effective on offense during the latter weeks of the regular season, scoring 76 points in three games. Those points came against three of the weaker teams in the league, but a team still needs to execute, regardless of the opponent.

Sterling features a hard-to-stop running game sparked by blocking from an offensive line that averages 6-foot-1, 228 pounds per lineman.

Steamboat's defensive line averages 6 feet, 211 pounds.

But the Sailors' defenders are accustomed to being outsized and underappreciated, playing little brother to every other unit on the field all season. True, Steamboat has given up big plays in the air and more than 200 yards rushing on several occasions, but what can't be ignored is that the unit has essentially done its job: keeping the opponent out of the end zone.

During the regular season, Steamboat outscored its opponents 286-113 during the first three quarters. And most high school offenses, particularly ones built on the run, aren't necessarily comfortable or capable of coming from behind to win.

"Steamboat's a very good team," Bauder said. "Offensively, they like to spread you out and do a lot of different things, and they do it well. They have a lot of kids they can throw to. If you try to stop one kid you're going to have to leave someone open, and they've got a lot of good athletes to take advantage of that. We will have to play very well."

Likewise, Steamboat will have to come up with an inspired game plan much like the one it used to defeat Moffat County, 22-12. The defense has to take up room in the middle and limit big plays over the top, while the offense must show patience and poise and capitalize on any mistakes Sterling may make.

In early November, weather often contributes directly to mistakes. But Steamboat's spent all week practicing in the cold and snow.

"It's been cold, but it's been fun," senior Shea Hurley said.

According to the National Weather Service, today should be a pleasant November day -- 43 degrees with partly cloudy skies with a slight westerly wind.

Kickoff between Steamboat and Sterling is 1 p.m. at Gardner Field. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for students. Children younger than 4 get in free. Activity passes will not be accepted.

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