Rifle The sign read: "The Comeback Kids. We Believe."
During the season, the Steamboat Springs football team overcame deficits and mistakes to win games -- sometimes in dramatic fashion, which is why parents designed the banner and hung it on the bleachers in Bears Stadium.
But on Saturday, when the Sailors needed a comeback the most, they fell short, losing to Rifle, 14-7, and ending their impressive postseason with a semifinal loss in Rifle.
"We were still going for it," Steamboat senior Thomas Allen said.
The late drive was needed after Rifle's Bryce Enewold put his team up seven points with a 12-yard run and successful point after try with 3 minutes, 7 seconds left in the game.
Steamboat took over at its 19-yard line with 3:04 remaining and one timeout left. The Sailors spread the field, and junior quarterback Tanner Stillwell handed the ball off to sophomore Jay Hanley for eight yards. Senior Walker Hammond took the option pitch for 7 yards on the next play, setting up a first down on Steamboat's 34-yard line.
In a game that lasted slightly more than two hours because of limited passing plays on both sides, Stillwell dropped back and hit Hanley on a short pass that he turned into a 26-yard gain down the middle of the field, moving the Sailors in Bears territory with two minutes to go.
But the drive ended on the next play when Rifle senior Tyler Thompson wrestled a Stillwell pass away from the intended receiver. The Bears ran out the clock.
"They made one mistake," Steamboat coach Aaron Finch said. "We made three."
Rifle's lone mistake came on the opening drive of the game. After chewing 7:27 off the clock to work inside the Steamboat 10-yard line, Thompson coughed up the ball, and Steamboat recovered.
The Sailors took the ball and drove to the Bears' 48-yard line before fumbling it back. Rifle took advantage, and Enewold scored on a 25-yard run early in the second quarter.
The Sailors managed just 66 yards in the first half, partly because they never had the ball. Hanley was held to 45 yards on 10 carries; Hammond had 11 yards on two carries.
"Hanley was the focal point of our plan," Bears coach Damon Wells said. "They do a tremendous job of getting him the ball in a variety of different ways."
A trademark big play from Hanley brought the Sailors back into the game early in the second half. On the third play of the third quarter, Hanley shot through a hole on the left side of the line for a 52-yard scoring run. Sophomore Ben DeLine's PAT was good. Hanley finished with 151 yards on 21 carries.
"Jay Hanley is a stud," Rifle lineman Mitch Kosht said.
Steamboat's defense, which played well enough to hold Rifle to 14 points, forced the Bears to punt on their next possession.
Steamboat got the ball at its 47-yard line and went on a 49-yard drive that ended in its second fumble of the game. The turnover came on second-and-goal, with the Sailors poised to go up by a touchdown midway into the third quarter.
The fumble energized Rifle and gave the home team the momentum it needed to win the game.
The Bears didn't score on their next possession, but they punted the ball to the Steamboat 5-yard line. The Sailors were unable to do anything with the ball and punted it away.
Junior Jace Bonner got off a great, high-arcing punt with the wind at his back. The football was headed over Thompson's head, but the senior returner snagged it before handing it off to a teammate on a reverse.
The Sailors had to change directions to make the tackle, but not before the Bears returned the punt to Steamboat's 37-yard line.
Rifle scored eight plays later on Enewold's 12-yard run.
The win moves Rifle into the state finals for the second-straight season. Last year, the Bears also were the No. 4 seed out of the Western Slope League and surprised everyone by winning the Class 3A championship.
"We are all so close," Finch said of the four league teams -- Eagle Valley, Palisade, Steamboat and Rifle -- that made the postseason. "Any of us would have been good playing next Saturday."
The four league teams won their first round playoff game. Steamboat defeated Eagle Valley in the quarterfinals. Rifle defeated Elizabeth in the quarterfinals before defeating Steamboat in the semifinals.
Rifle will host Southern League champion Florence in the finals at 1 p.m. Saturday. Florence defeated league foe Alamosa, 26-12, in the other semifinal.
"It's just a bummer that both of us can't go on," Wells said.
In the previous meeting between Rifle and Steamboat, the Sailors won 14-12. Steamboat lineman Vince Grippa said the Bears executed better Saturday than in the previous game.
"I think both teams got a ton better since the last game we played," Kosht said. "We were two evenly matched teams."
Steamboat finishes 10-3, including wins against rival Moffat County, league champion Eagle Valley and Southern League runner-up Harrison. The Sailors also defeated Class 5A Aurora Central and Class 4A Arvada in the first two games of the year.
-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail email@example.com