Greeley Central coach Ian Wale believes if anyone can give Steamboat Springs a competitive match in Steamboat, it's his team.
The regional playoffs open with the Sailors, the No. 2 Western Slope seed, hosting the Wildcats, the No. 4 Northern league seed, at 4 p.m. Thursday at Dudley Field.
The winner advances into the 16-team pool to be seeded by a state committee. The loser's season is over.
Last season, Greeley Central ended Steamboat's season with a 5-0 blowout win, and Wale and Sailors coach Rob Bohlmann acknowledge the revenge factor heading into Thursday's game.
"We got worked last year," Steamboat senior Bjorn Utu said. "I remember that, but I'm not using what we saw last year. We are a new team, and so are they."
Greeley Central (8-5-2) graduated 10 players from last year's team, which finished in the top four in Class 4A, but Wale used the term "reload" rather than rebuild when referring to this season's squad.
"It took us some time to get our stride, but we look forward to this game," Wale said. "I start seven sophomores, and as the season's gone along, they've gained experience. I have seniors who are excellent players who helped carry us through."
The Sailors (12-3) have a more experienced lineup heading into Thursday's game, and they have the home-field advantage, which makes them the favorite, Wale said.
The Wildcats counter with junior goalkeeper Josh Shatz-Batchelor, an experienced defense and senior forward Mark Olivia, who leads the Northern league with 19 goals scored.
"We know their system of play a little bit so there is some familiarity," Bohlmann said. "We are expecting a competitive opponent."
They key to who leaves Dudley Field victorious may come in the first 10 to 15 minutes of Thursday's game. The Sailors have lost three games this season, and in all three, Utu said, Steamboat came out flat.
If Greeley Central comes at the Sailors with an attack similar to what they've seen, Steamboat will have to be prepared for a quick, countering team that's well organized and well coached.
But it's playoff time, and Steamboat knows there are no more easy games.
"The level of play will ratchet up a notch," Utu said. "I've noticed when we play a higher level of opponent we come out hard, and we have to, especially now because we can't lose."
The Sailors had the weekend off and came back ready to face the Wildcats. Monday was one of the best days of practice the team has had all year, Bohlmann said.
Last season, Wale said, Greeley Central won because it had a deeper bench and used fresh legs to defeat Steamboat. This year, season-ending injuries to Sailors Dusty Atkinson and Sean Carlson have depleted the original varsity roster, but other players have stepped up.
Bohlmann said the team is obviously disappointed Carlson and Atkinson can't be part of the postseason run, but it has moved ahead. And if they face an onslaught of fresh legs again this season, they'll just have to push harder.
"Steamboat is well coached and we're very aware of the situation we're entering into," Wale said. "We have to try and control the game early and knock them back a bit if we can."