Steamboat Springs They weren't a very good basketball team.
They struggled to a 2-3 start in two preseason tournaments with both wins coming against teams in lower classifications.
They lost two of three games in their home tournament, including a 21-point loss to D'Evelyn.
"Our team was soft. We didn't bring physicality. We were losing loose ball wars. We were a weak defensive club," Steamboat Springs boys basketball coach Kelly Meek said. "And our kids didn't disagree with that."
But five days after the loss to D'Evelyn, Steamboat found something.
Playing in a tournament in Wyoming, Steamboat started to play like a team. After a couple of team dinners and a trip to the movies, the chemistry that was there during summer camps started to creep its way back.
Steamboat opened the tournament losing to Sheridan, Wyo. 56-55.
"Maybe it was a good loss," point guard Michael Vandahl said. "We just didn't really want to lose anymore. The next night, we beat Green River in Green River."
It was the Green River game that showed Meek more about this group of Sailors than anything else.
Playing before a raucous home crowd of 1,500, "in a Duke-like environment," Meek said he saw something on his players' faces. The 1,500 rang down boos after introductions but the Sailors weren't in awe.
"They had a gleam and a look in their eyes," Meek said. "I said, 'isn't this great? Let's go shut them down and shut this crowd down.' That's when I felt it and knew we had something going."
Since that game, the Sailors have not lost and finished off the fifth undefeated league record since Steamboat joined Class 4A. Rifle is the only other team in the Western Slope to go without a blemish in league play.
"It was just having patience and knowing it would take a few games to get back into a rhythm," senior Tanner Stillwell said.
And what a rhythm they've found.
Steamboat won league games by an average of 18 points. The closest game the team had was a 56-54 win against Glenwood Springs. The next closest was 10 points.
"I didn't think it would happen," senior Cameron Petet said. "When I was a freshman, they went undefeated in the league. I thought it would be great, but to be honest, I am a little overwhelmed."
Meek said each team he has coached has had something unique, but this year's Sailors have a special distinction. He said there's a bond like he has never seen. When Meek tapes the ankles of four players before practice, the whole team is in the training room cracking on each other. When they have their pre-practice meeting, the mood shifts and the Sailors all just listen.
"This one is a different personality than I've ever had," Meek said. "In terms of acceptance and being good to each other all the way from the No. 1 guy to the No. 12 guy."
A prime example of the Sailors' selflessness happened in the final regular season game against Battle Mountain.
Of the 33 field goals Steamboat made, 27 of them were assisted.
"We're a really close, close group," junior Aaron Calkins said. "It's a huge part of our success. We trust each other because we're all close friends. We all hang out."
"We're always playing together," Stillwell said. "We've grown together. We always have fun together."
Now with the regular season done, the Sailors look forward to the state playoffs where the seeding committee will decide their fate today.
Past history suggests Steamboat should receive a bid in the top 16 if not higher. Either way, the success in the season has built high expectations.
"We want to win state," Calkins said. "We just have to prove it in the tournament."
Not a bad goal for a team that came from being mentally and physically soft to a team that has won 17 games in a row.
"What's really nice with this group is we completely changed our personality as a group," Meek said. "We clamped down and became a very solid defensive team and that has fueled our offense : We're a calm and poised unit that is very ready to go into these playoffs, get after it, and see what happens."
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