Steamboat opens baseball season today

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For once, it seems, the Steamboat Springs baseball team caught a break, though it came at the expense of another program.

A couple of weeks ago, low numbers prevented Soroco from having a baseball team this spring, so the few players from South Routt who were interested in the sport became Sailors for the season.

"Getting the kids from Soroco saved us because we were hurting on pitching," junior Tyler Fosdick said.

Pitching is the absolute must-have in the Western Slope League, and the additions of Jack Means, John Little and Ben Montoya from Soroco may provide the lift Steamboat needs to make the playoffs.

"I'm happy to be playing up here," Means, a senior, said.

More than 20 players gathered for practice Thursday in the cramped confines of the old gym at the high school. A batting cage on the far side of the gym serves as the team's home until it is able to practice outside this season.

Playing home games in Craig and spending hours practicing inside is something Steamboat's players are unhappy about but to which they are accustomed.

"It's a little difficult taking ground balls on the hardwood floor, walking outside and it's snowing and knowing you have a game Saturday," senior Sean Murphy said.

The Sailors open the season today at Grand Junction High School and begin what may turn out to be the best season in school history.

Last season, under coaches Sean Hicks and Gary Engle, Steamboat won four games, a drastic improvement from when Hicks took over the program three years ago. But it wasn't the number of wins that stood out most to Hicks; it was the difference in the way the Sailors played.

"Last year, we competed," Hicks said. "I look at all the one- or two-run games we were in, and we have seven returning starters back. ... This is the first year I can honestly say it's very realistic for us to make the playoffs, and if the players don't believe the same thing, I don't want them on the team."

Hicks isn't alone in his excitement. Veteran players Murphy and Fosdick have high expectations, as well. Murphy enters the season as the Sailors' ace on the mound, and Fosdick comes in injured but eager for his full-time return.

Fosdick had shoulder surgery Dec. 4, which forced him of out basketball, but he needed the operation to help heal his arm and get him ready for baseball.

"This is my sport," Fosdick said.

Fosdick won't be able to pitch this season, so he will serve as the designated hitter and, likely, first baseman until his arm recovers enough to allow him to make the throw safely from short stop to first base.

"I think the team is excited about the season," Murphy said. "I think we have the strongest team we've ever had because a lot of underclassmen got a lot of experience last season."

Hicks understands that some players are trying to transition from winter sports to baseball, and practicing in a gym can't replace on-field time, but he is looking for improved play, primarily because of the experience.

Steamboat struggled offensively last season because many players didn't step into the box with confidence. They watched pitches go by, got behind in the count and, consequently, ended up swinging at bad pitches for the third strike.

"They didn't get any good cuts at the ball," Hicks said.

How Steamboat fares on the mound and on offense likely will determine the Sailors' postseason fate.

Delta is the favorite to win the league and possibly contend for a state title, and Rifle and Palisade figure to be tough, as well. To get into the playoffs this season, Steamboat will have to finish in the top three, a difficult task, but one no one is willing to dismiss in March.

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