You can't escape shadows.
But the members of the Steamboat Springs volleyball team haven't tried to run from the shadow of last season's state runner-up team, arguably the greatest in Sailors' history, that looms over them. They have instead embraced the position they are in, measuring themselves not by past standards, but by the expectations they have set now.
The end of October marks the time for postseason volleyball, and the Sailors open District 4 play against Berthoud at 4 p.m. today.
With a 15-4 overall record, Steamboat isn't a favorite to advance to the state tournament or even to win its district, but records don't matter anymore. Every team has a chance to advance, and the Sailors believe the season's outcome is in their control.
Steamboat's second-place league finish prevented the Sailors from hosting a district tournament. Western Slope champion Glenwood Springs won that honor.
Instead, Steamboat will travel to Loveland as the No. 3 seed in a tournament hosted by Mountain View, the Skyline League champion.
Joining Steamboat and Mountain View in District 4 are No. 2 seed Hinkley from the Continental League, No. 4 Widefield and No. 8 Harrison of the Colorado Springs Metro League, No. 5 Elizabeth of the Jefferson County League, No. 6 Berthoud of the Northern League and No. 7 Centaurus of the Skyline League.
The top two teams from District 4 advance to regional action next weekend; their opponents and the tournament location are to be determined.
"I feel good about our draw," Sailors coach Wendy Hall said. "We are in a district where we could come out in the top two."
Steamboat's usual starting six -- seniors Hannah Gary, Shelley Dunlop, Brynn Gotchey and Katie Liefer and juniors Kristyn Bradbury and Stacy Cavanagh -- were varsity members last season. But each player received limited or no playing time because of the seven seniors already entrenched in their spots.
Instead, the younger six, which lifted the junior varsity team to an undefeated record last season, took some satisfaction in practicing against the varsity squad, one of Colorado's top teams regardless of class, and watching how the veterans prepared for each opponent.
"I think this group has taken what they did get and that is being able to train with those kids all last year, and I know they feel fortunate about that," Hall said. "They've never focused on what they didn't get but focused on the opportunities they did have. They got to train at a very high level last year, and that trained them to get better."
A summer of club volleyball, strength and conditioning work, and open gyms also brought a team of seniors, juniors and sophomores together for a common goal -- returning to the state tournament.
Bradbury said the experience last year made the team want to go back.
But it wasn't until watching tape of the Oct. 16 match against undefeated Glenwood Springs, Cavanagh said, when something caught her eye. After losing the first two games, the Sailors came out in the third inspired, confident and maybe a bit mad. Steamboat won -- Glenwood didn't lose -- the third game, and the Sailors nearly took the fourth, playing at a level everyone's been waiting to see.
"We looked like a varsity team," Cavanagh said.
District is a two-day format where overlooking an opponent likely means an end to the season. Steamboat's mental focus must be sharp, and its play must be consistent.
"We'll decide by our play if we're going to go on," Gary said.