Steamboat Springs The Steamboat Springs Sailors already have beaten a Class 5A team and a Class 4A team this season.
On Friday night, they added the defending Class 3A state champions to their list of victims, downing the Rifle Bears, 14-12.
"To be four games in at 3-1," Coach Aaron Finch said, "is about as good as we could have hoped for."
The wins haven't always been pretty, and Friday's was no exception. After jumping out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, the Sailors managed no more points. They also made a few critical errors that allowed Rifle to get back in the game. In the end, Rifle's inability to make a conversion proved to be the margin.
On offense, the Sailors managed just 174 yards, with the vast majority of that coming via the legs of sophomore running back Jay Hanley, who ground out 127 yards on 24 carries.
But the Sailors' defense didn't need anymore from their offensive teammates. The Sailors held the Bears to just 150 yards of total offense. More important, every time Rifle threatened down the stretch, Steamboat came up with a big stop. Some examples:
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Rifle went for it on fourth-and-1 from Steamboat's 9-yard line. Bear quarterback Tyler Gose tried to sneak behind his guard, but Sailor lineman Lane Shipley broke through and stuffed Gose for no gain.
With seven minutes left in the game, Rifle moved into Steamboat territory. But Shipley sacked Gose on second-and-9, and Thomas Allen sacked him on fourth-and-8 to end that threat.
Finally, with two minutes left, Rifle took over on its 39. But on the first play, defensive back Scott Stanko stepped in front of a Gose pass and picked it off. The interception allowed the Sailors to run out the clock.
"It was a huge team effort," Shipley said about the defensive stops in the last period. "It was sweet to see our defense work the way it is designed to work."
Rifle Coach Damon Wells said that he and his staff discussed kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 at the Sailors' 9 to start the fourth. But, given the struggles the team had with kicking a conversion earlier in the game, he decided the Bears had a better chance to make the first down.
"That was my fault," Wells said. "It was my decision to go for it. Of course, that was just the first play of the fourth quarter, so there was a lot of time left.
"Everybody keeps saying we're young because we lost 21 seniors. But we're not young, we're just inexperienced. For us, it's about executing the small plays. We didn't do that very well tonight, and it hurt us. That's my fault."
Early on, it appeared Steamboat might run away with the game. The Sailors dominated the first quarter, scoring twice and not allowing the Bears to pick up a first down in three possessions.
Jack Serhant got the Sailors' scoring started when he broke through and blocked Rifle punter Andrew Schmidt's kick. The ball ricocheted in the air, and Sam Gary gathered it in at the Rifle 12 and ran into the end zone.
The defense held Rifle to three and out on the Bears' next possession. Then Steamboat went on an eight-play, 51-yard drive capped off by quarterback Tanner Stillwell's 1-yard run. Hanley did most of the work on the drive, picking up 36 yards on four carries.
But with seven minutes left in the half, the Bears' offense came alive. After forcing Steamboat to punt, Rifle took over on the Sailors' 49 and proceeded to go on a five-minute, 10-play drive capped off by a 1-yard run by Tyler Thompson.
Steamboat ret--urned the ensuing kick to its 47-yard line. But a penalty, incomplete pass and sack forced the Sailors into a fourth-and-27 from their 30 with just 30 seconds left in the half.
That's when disaster struck -- the snap sailed over punter Jace Bonner's head. Bonner fell on the ball at his own 6.
On the ensuing play, Rifle's Bryce Enewold scored on a sweep, closing the gap to 14-12. Fortunately for the Sailors, Gose's two-point conversion pass fell incomplete.
The botched punt was among five turnovers the Sailors suffered in the game. "If you had told me that we would turn the ball over five times and still beat the defending state champions, there's no way I would have believed you," Finch said.
The Sailors have won seven of their past eight games dating back to last season. They enter their game Friday at rival Moffat County in a good position in the Western Slope League. Moffat County is 2-1 after losing 27-19 to Eagle Valley on Friday.
"Look at Rifle -- last year they were the fourth seed out of our league, and they won the state championship," Finch said. "The whole mission for us is making the playoffs. You've got to get into that second season, and we took another step toward that tonight."