The seniors on this year's Steamboat Springs boys basketball team were like many before them.
They came in as freshmen, hearing rumors about the difficulty and high expectations of coach Kelly Meek's program. It didn't change what they believed about themselves.
"You always talk like you are going to be good," senior Pat Ayres said. "We saw potential in us. He saw potential in us."
Then Ayres' voice started to quiver.
The Sailors didn't come to Denver to talk about the season in the past tense. They came to Denver to leave as members of the Final Four. With Saturday's loss to D'Evelyn, however, Steamboat's players and coaches were forced to smile and embrace and reflect on one of the greatest seasons in Sailors history.
Steamboat finished 21-3, won the Western Slope League championship by a staggering three games and put together an 18-game winning streak.
"This was one of the best teams I've ever had," said Meek, who has coached the team for 31 years. "They have come miles. This was a group of guys that could have been fractured and weren't. They are fighters."
On and off the court. More than one Steamboat player has butted heads with Meek about off-court expectations and on-court style of basketball. Senior Cameron Burney called Meek's style "country ball," in tribute -- or disdain -- for its emphasis on defense. It's a stark contrast to the style of basketball played in the NBA.
This year, however, every player bought into what Meek preached. Each time down the court and on each inbounds play, the players were given instructions about what to run and followed it for the most part. No player became bigger than anyone else.
The Sailors began to epitomize the team Meek spent three years trying to form.
On Saturday, former players from across the country were in attendance to watch the Sweet 16 game, in part because former Steamboat players never grow out of being Sailors.
Meek said he went around the locker room after the loss and hugged each senior -- Ayres, Burney, Tyler Fosdick, Collin Hare, Henry Howard, Dustin Moran and Patrick Weber -- and said he hoped to see them in the stands in the future, as well.
Moran didn't see much playing time during his freshman and sophomore seasons. Last year, he began his transformation. This year, he was one of the state's top assist men and evolved into the commanding court leader Steamboat needed.
"I think we realized how important (being a team) was this year because it was our last year," Moran said. "The first couple of years, Coach and I didn't get along. Last year, everything was different. It's his way or no way. In the long run, it's the right way."
Saturday night, while everyone affiliated with Steamboat basketball was agitated by the loss to D'Evelyn and nature of it -- Burney received three questionable offensive foul calls before exiting early in the fourth quarter -- Meek helped keep things in perspective.
He's coached many teams through the years, and each one was important, but this season -- and for the past four years -- he helped a group of freshmen become young men.
And that, he'll say, is the most important coaching job of all.
-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org