Steamboat Springs The boys on the Steamboat Springs basketball team thought they had the right stuff this summer.
A tough first-round playoff loss to Montrose that ended the boys' 2005-06 season sent the core group of eight returning varsity players on a summer mission to improve their games. They played the equivalent of an entire season during the summer, going 16-4 at tournaments in Laramie, Wyo., and Gunnison, and holding their own against some of the nation's best in Las Vegas.
But then the team hit a roadblock at the beginning of this season.
First, Michael Vandahl suffered three meniscus tears in a preseason game. The returning starting point guard had the injury inspected with arthroscopic surgery three weeks before the Sailors' first official practice. Doctors found the tears already had begun to heal on their own, and the resulting surgery sidelined Vandahl for the first two weeks of practice.
"It sucked," Vandahl said last week during the team's winter break. "I just had to sit and watch while my leg got weaker."
Two other players from the summer crew also were missing from those early practices. Tanner Stillwell and Alex Wood were busy finishing their playoff run with the Sailors' football team.
But when they returned in time to get a few practices in before Steamboat's first tournament games Dec. 1 and 2 at Roaring Fork, it just wasn't the same.
"We wanted to get back to that point right away," Stillwell said of the team's summer performance. "It was definitely a struggle to get back and create that chemistry."
Stillwell also was recovering from a knee injury. A partial patella tendon tear at the end of the 2005 football season limited his mobility. But thanks to the help of physical therapist Gregg Johnson, Stillwell said his main adjustment was the transition from a grass field to the hardwood court.
With Stillwell and Vandahl still getting their legs under them, an ankle injury to Aaron Calkins, the team's only other returning starter from last season, made matters worse. Steamboat coach Kelly Meek noted the team's struggles in the early games.
"We weren't near where we had been in terms of team identity," Meek said. "We were flat fractured."
But as Vandahl became more confident with his knee and as Stillwell and Calkins regained their speed on the floor, the group began finding its stride.
"We've gotten better every weekend, and in Green River, every game we just
got better," Stillwell said. "We started to hit a groove lately."
The Sailors played in the Flaming Gorge Classic in mid-December in Green River, Wyo. In a 36-hour span, the Sailors won three of their four games, beat the state's No. 4- and No. 5-ranked teams, and won their four-team tournament championship pool.
Meek noted Vandahl's ability to finally play extensive and effective minutes. And in terms of half-court execution on offense, Meek said Vandahl and Calkins improved their shooting, helping the Sailors shoot better than 50 percent from the field in the tournament's final three games. On the defensive side, Meek was quick to point out the "the big-time role" Stillwell played.
The team's renewed ability to play together may be its biggest asset in overcoming a lack of size.
"That friendship goes a long way," Stillwell said about the bonds the team formed over the summer.
Meek thinks his team's scrimmages against Sailors alumni during the holiday break open-gym sessions will continue to make the team stronger.
"As kids, they've seen that camaraderie in the past and want to carry on that tradition," Meek said. "The older kids come back and they expect it to be the same. It's genuine team-ism - and you can't take that for granted."
The Sailors quickly will find out how they stack up against league opponents after the break. They play five games in eight days, starting with a home game against Rifle at 5 p.m. Friday.
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