Billy Taylor, right, sneaks a shot on goal past defender Ian Anderson during the Sailors' hockey practice at Howelsen Ice Arena on Thursday afternoon.
Steamboat Springs Nothing has come easy this season for the Steamboat Springs High School boys hockey team.
Kicking off its season against some of the state's staunchest opponents left Steamboat in a 0-4 hole. Since then, the Sailors have regrouped to win four of their past five games to start Peak Conference play. During that streak, the Sailors have outscored opponents, 23-9, and established themselves atop the conference standings.
But now the team is faced with its toughest challenge yet.
Returning Saturday from last weekend's two-win road trip - in which it shut out conference powerhouse Air Academy, 2-0, and lambasted Coronado, 9-1 - the team learned of the death of teammate Cole Verploeg, a junior back-up goalkeeper.
Fortunately, the Sailors feel like they are coming together for what Steamboat head coach Jeff Ruff called a pivotal two-game weekend. Tonight, Steamboat takes on a skilled 7-1-1 Lewis-Palmer squad currently ranked No. 4 in the state by the Rocky Mountain News. The game starts at 6:30 p.m. at Monument's Colorado Sports Center. Steamboat then returns to the Pueblo Plaza Ice Arena at noon Saturday for a rematch with a Pueblo County team it beat, 3-2, on Dec. 21.
"I feel like we've started to come together as a team - believing in each other, buying into the systems and the younger kids starting to play with confidence," senior winger Cam Fritz said before Thursday's practice.
While Fritz noted how emotionally tough the week's first practices were, he assured the Sailors would be ready to put three periods together against a talented Lewis-Palmer team.
Ruff said his team will need that focus to match the solid offensive and defensive systems play as well as the dual ability to shut down opponents' top players and regroup in the neutral zone. That kind of play led to the Sailors' best games of the year, Jan. 5 against Cheyenne Mountain and last week at Air Academy.
"We'll do the best we can with these circumstances," Ruff said. "I think the best thing these guys can do is rally around each other, and if we can come away with two wins, we'll have some positive emotion there."
The players are ready to hit the ice and concentrate on the game assignments at hand.
"When we're on the ice, it's our place to let everything go," Fritz said.