Returning to the playoffs was the goal of the Steamboat Springs High School football team.
"Now, we want the playoffs to be a reward," Sailors Coach Aaron Finch said.
Steamboat would like to advance as far as possible this postseason, but the pressure is off. The Sailors aren't a favorite to win a Class 3A state title. As the third-place team from the Western Slope League, Steamboat isn't even favored to win tonight's opening-round playoff game against Harrison, the runner-up in the Southern League.
But the Sailors aren't in the habit of watching the odds.
If so, Steamboat, which starts two sophomores and has just one starter with playoff experience, wouldn't find itself in the postseason.
"We've got where we are by doing what we do well," Finch said. "That's what we are focusing on."
What the Sailors do well is run the football. Steamboat finished the regular season with nearly 2,000 rushing yards as a team, despite having a limited passing attack for most of the year. In a lopsided win in Delta on Oct. 28, however, the Sailors were able to play-action pass effectively. Consequently, they were almost impossible to stop.
Finch said Steamboat (8-2 overall) wants to establish a play-action passing game again in tonight's game against Harrison (5-5).
Kickoff between Steamboat and Harrison is at 7 p.m. at Memorial Stadium in Colorado Springs.
"It should be a real fun game," Finch said. "The games they've won, they've won with their offense.
"Where their defense has struggled is against a real strong running game, and that's obviously been our strength this year."
The seniors on this year's Harrison team were freshmen the last time the Panthers were in the postseason. Tonight's game at Memorial Stadium is the first home playoff game ever for Harrison. Panthers coach Shawn Mitchell acknowledged his team isn't entering the playoffs impressively.
Harrison lost to rival Sierra -- a nonleague Class 4A school -- 47-7 on Nov. 4. Steamboat and Harrison are Class 3A schools.
"I think we went in knowing it had no bearing on what was going to happen to us," Mitchell said about the Sierra game. "Sierra came out, and they were fired up. They knew it was their last game of the season. The honest-to-goodness truth is they outmanned us."
The Panthers run an option offense, but quarterback Adam Gates, who has a team-high 579 rushing yards, throws downfield more than traditional option quarterbacks. He has 1,107 passing yards this season.
Antoine Gates leads Harrison with 614 receiving yards on 32 receptions. The Panthers' top-three receivers average more than 18 yards a reception. The big-play potential can be attributed to the quarterback's athleticism and the receivers' stature. All stand taller than 6 feet.
Harrison is one of the state's top basketball schools.
"They like throwing the jump pass," Finch said. "They'll throw up the jump ball. They have three really solid, good receivers that are probably good basketball players."
Steamboat has seen -- and defeated -- a similar team this year in Aurora Central. Aurora Central's receivers towered above Steamboat's secondary, and the Sailors found themselves behind in the first half.
Steamboat rallied to win the game, and senior Tanner Grimes had two interceptions in the process. Grimes and seniors Scott Stanko and Jack Serhant will be the trio that Gates tries to exploit.
But Steamboat hasn't given up big plays -- on either side of the ball -- since a win against Cortez on Sept. 30. Through 10 games, Grimes, Stanko and Serhant have combined to make 11 interceptions and countless pass breakups.
The gaudy interception number can be attributed to the improvement of the three defensive backs as well as the penetration made by Steamboat's defensive linemen and linebacking corps.
"You have to be in position, but you've got to have the quarterback on the run," Finch said. Harrison doesn't feature a lot of multiple receiver sets, which gives Gates more blockers on the line and in the backfield. Finch said tonight's challenge defensively will be breaking through the maximum protection so Gates doesn't get comfortable in the pocket.
For Harrison, Mitchell said, the challenge is getting the Sailors off the field.
"I'm more than impressed with that Hanley kid," Mitchell said about Steamboat's leading rusher Jay Hanley. "We've seen running backs similar to him, and we've struggled with them, so that will be a challenge.
"They are power and smash mouth. That is not us. We try to rely more on speed, and hopefully that will be a challenge for them. I think it will be a great matchup."