Steamboat Springs' defense was not supposed to win Saturday's playoff game. Ask linebacker David May, who doubles as the Sailors' starting quarterback. May figured the only way Steamboat could beat Sterling was if the game turned into a shoot out.
Instead, Steamboat defeated Sterling 13-10 in a mud bath of a match-up that featured the Sailors' fiery attitude on defense rather than their offensive finesse.
"If you would have told me the final score was 13-10 I would have thought we would have won it," a disappointed Tigers coach Mark Bauder said.
Despite scoring a season-low 13 points and amassing 138 fewer offensive yards than the Tigers, the Sailors came out victorious and will host D'Evelyn in the quarterfinals next weekend at Gardner Field. The time and date are to be determined.
Steamboat's win Saturday was sealed when Shane Cramer's 38-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left with just five seconds left. May took a knee to run out the clock, sending the Sailors into a post-game hug fest, while the Sterling players were left to hide their heads in their hands in heartache.
"To Steamboat's credit, they made plays," Bauder said. "We've got to be proud that we didn't lay down and die."
After failing to move the ball with much consistency in the fourth quarter, Sterling quarterback Jeff Squier threw two straight 35-yard passes to Derek Pilkington and Shane Gertner, setting up a first and goal with 2 minutes and 10 seconds on the clock.
But Sterling's drive ended when Steamboat's Clay McKenzie recovered Derek Schneider's fumble on the 5-yard line. Kris Gayer forced the ball loose.
"I rocked the house," Gayer said with a smile. "They ran a 20-give, and I shot the gap and hit the running back in the face and broke my helmet. Then, Mr. McKenzie recovered it."
But Steamboat's offense failed to get a first down and had to punt the ball away deep in its territory with 54 seconds left.
The Tigers took over and Squier picked up a first down on a broken-play run, but he overshot his receivers on the next three snaps from the 20-yard line, forcing Bauder to decide whether to kick for the tie or take one more shot into the end zone for the win.
With 10 seconds left, a low snap set up Cramer's kick, which hooked and landed helplessly in a snow pile left of the uprights.
Neither team was able to put points on the board in the second half. Steamboat coach Mark Drake attributed his team's offensive woes to the inability to find any rhythm on a muddy grass field.
Sterling's inability to score, however, can directly be attributed to two fumbles and two interceptions -- two of which came near the goal line.
Chris Dombey was on the receiving end of Squier's first interception to close out the first half, as Sterling tried to score six instead of kicking for three to tie the game.
It ended up as the margin of difference because the offensive action that took part in the first half, most notably the second quarter, essentially disappeared in the game's final 24 minutes.
Sterling got on the scoreboard first off Cramer's 30-yard field goal with 59 seconds to go in the first quarter. On that same drive, the Tigers actually were breathing on the goal line but a delay of game penalty moved Sterling from the 2-yard line to the 7-yard line. Two Michael Herbert and May tackles for loss later, the Tigers were forced to take three instead of a possible seven.
It was Sterling's only penalty of the game.
The Sailors answered the Tigers by piecing together their own impressive drive, highlighted by a 47-yard pass to Dombey and May's third-down conversion pass after nearly being sacked. May finished the drive with a 16-yard scoring run early in the second.
Sterling scored on its next possession using one 78-yard bulldozing run from Cramer, giving the Tigers a 10-6 lead.
Steamboat scored the final points of the game near the first half's conclusion on Casey Earp's fourth-down 20-yard reception. But Earp paid a price for the grab. Earp, also a hockey player, has been on the receiving end of his fair share of checks, but he said the football lick he took Saturday was up there toward the top.
Earp's score ended up making the difference Saturday.
"They have a never-say-die attitude," Drake said of his team after the win. "They keep working their tails off. There aren't words to express how much heart these kids have."
Basically, the team doesn't want the season to end, May said. The win moved Steamboat to 10-1 overall, while Sterling finished at 5-6.
Steamboat joins league members Palisade and Moffat County in the next round of the playoffs. Palisade defeated Rifle 34-15 at Stocker Stadium on Friday. Moffat County beat Berthoud 25-0 in Berthoud.