'Tis the season: Opportunity knocks for Steamboat football

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Steamboat Springs High School football coach Aaron Finch discusses the upcoming season after practice Friday.

Steamboat Springs High School football coach Aaron Finch discusses the upcoming season after practice Friday.

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Steamboat Springs quarterback Tanner Stillwell drops back for a pass during football practice last week.

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Steamboat Springs Weston Cofer sharpens his defensive skills during the Sailors practice Thursday afternoon at the high school's practice facility.

— There was a hint of hesitation in Aaron Finch's voice, but the smile revealed his true feelings - a big year could be on the horizon for Steamboat Springs football.

But Finch had a point to make: the Sailors haven't proven anything yet. In his mind, Steamboat is "tied for last place in the state right now."

"Our focus is getting to the playoffs and then creating our own opportunities," said Finch, the Sailors' second-year head coach. "It's easy to talk about but hard to achieve."

But what's not to like about a team coming off a 10-2 season in which it lost in the state semifinals? Since the beginning of the summer, Steamboat has held lifting sessions three times a week, and at least 25 players have showed up to each session. Team members also went to the Mesa State Football Camp, where they turned heads across the state.

"They're good. Real good," Moffat County head coach Kip Hafey said. "They should be one of the teams to beat this year."

The Sailors also return nine starters, including first team All-Staters Lane Shipley and Westin Cofer.

"Everybody wants a golden football at the end of the year, but you have to work to do it," said Shipley, who's attracting interest from Colorado State University and Ivy League schools. "First and foremost, you have to make the playoffs."

Making the playoffs in the powerhouse Western Slope League is no easy matter. Pali-sade has won numerous state titles, and Rifle has won one and finished second in the past two years. In last year's state quarterfinals, four of the final eight teams were from the Western Slope League.

"There are no weak sisters in this league," Finch said. "There's not a week in our league you can assure a win."

Along with Shipley and Cofer, the Sailors return three-year starting quarterback Tanner Stillwell, running back Jay Hanley, linebacker Jace Bonner and offensive tackle Alex Centner.

Finch said this year's offense will open up the passing game a little more than past years because of Stillwell's ability to dissect a defense at the line of scrimmage. The running game will still be strong with Hanley, who ran for more than 1,300 yards last season despite missing five games.

Still, according to Finch, the defense will be the unit that drives the team. Playing a 3-5-3 scheme allows Finch to use the athleticism on his team. It also helps open up lanes for a defensive end like Shipley.

"Our whole thing starts with defense," he said. "We think the energy our defense brings will carry onto the offensive side of the ball."

Finch said there isn't a more deserving bunch of players that merit a storybook season. Since the seniors were freshmen, Finch said he could tell there was something special about the group.

"This group has always shown the ability to do the hard work," he said. "This group of athletes is willing to do whatever it takes. They've all earned the right to be successful."

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