Keys to the game
- Three-and-a-break: Steamboat’s best hope of combating Pueblo Central’s size advantage is to keep the Wildcats’ offense off the field and its own offense on it. If Pueblo Central is able to mount a series of long, draining drives in the first half, the Sailors defense could well be tuckered out in the second. Can Steamboat’s D manage to get off the field on third down, and will its offense be able to provide the necessary rest by sustaining its own drives?
- Out of the blocks: Steamboat has yet to get off to a really fast start this postseason. Coach Aaron Finch said it’s nice to know the team still has its best football in it, but the Sailors would be wise to crack open that ability early in Saturday’s game. Pueblo Central has been able to get early leads against its opponents and then lean on them with its big offensive line to munch the clock, wear down the defense and move the ball. If the Sailors get behind by two or three scores early, they could be in trouble. Will they be able to get an early lead?
- As different as Steamboat and Pueblo Central look on paper, they’re probably somewhat similar in terms of ability and skill. All the teams are when you get down to the final four in the playoffs. Then what usually makes the difference? Turnovers and penalties. Neither category has cost Steamboat in its first two playoffs games, but the margin for error will be almost nil Saturday. Can the Sailors avoid mistakes and win those battles?
If you go
What: No. 4 Steamboat Springs (12-0) at No. 1 Pueblo Central (12-0)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Dutch Clark Stadium, Pueblo
Tickets will be available from the stadium box office starting at 11 a.m. Ticket prices are $8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors.
Steamboat Springs In one sense, it was a frustration.
Family gatherings had to be pushed back, the big dinner postponed and any thoughts of a trip out of town shelved.
Neither the Steamboat Springs High School football team nor its foes this weekend from Pueblo Central would have it any other way, though.
Both teams practiced Thanksgiving Day, and both teams did so with wide smiles.
“I never imagined it any other way,” Steamboat senior lineman Carl Steele said. “I like it, actually.”
The two undefeated teams will meet at 1 p.m. Saturday at Pueblo’s Dutch Clark Stadium in the state semifinals. Both said they’re thrilled to be there. And both said they’re eager to earn the right to play one more week of football, next weekend at the state championship game.
With two teams that rely on staggeringly different styles, no one is quite sure what to expect from Saturday’s game.
“They’re two very different teams,” said Delta coach Ben Johnson, whose team lost to the Wildcats last weekend in the state quarterfinals. “They’re just both very good at what they do.”
The Sailors intend to rely on the same kind of offense and defense that got them to this point.
That means more varied looks from an offensive unit not afraid to pass for the big play and an opportunistic defensive unit that has crushed opponents all year with turnovers.
“Truly, I don’t think you can stop an offense like they have,” Pueblo Central coach Dave Craddock said. “They really do a great job with their passing, and it sure will present a challenge to our defensive backs.
“We have played a few teams that can really throw it, but I don’t know if any of them can move it like Steamboat.”
Pueblo, meanwhile, could not be more different.
Week in and week out, Steamboat has battled teams with larger players. Last week, the team’s quarterfinal opponent outweighed the Sailors’ front line by nearly 20 pounds per player.
By comparison, that will seem like an even match this week as the Wildcats rely on offensive and defensive lines that will outweigh Steamboat’s by about 50 pounds.
“They’re a big, big balanced football team,” Steamboat coach Aaron Finch said. “They have a big offensive line and a big defensive line and big linebackers. It’s going to be work, but we think there are some things we can do to get the ball down the field and get first downs and get into the end zone.”
All season, Pueblo Central has been able to turn to those big boys, to running backs Keanu Valdez and Tommy Vasquez and quarterback Max Lerille, and grind up opponents.
Valdez is the team’s primary back and has averaged more than 200 yards per game in the playoffs.
“He’s got great vision like all great backs do, and he’s able to exploit some holes,” Craddock said. “He’s a tough kid that will put his shoulder down and get you the extra two yards but is also nimble enough to make a move and get into the secondary.”
Those who have faced the Wildcats claim they’re more than muscle, though.
Delta lost, 34-7, and struggled to get much of anything going against the Wildcats’ big defense.
Still, it was Pueblo’s ability to throw that really tipped the balance.
“Their play-action pass murdered us,” Johnson said. “They do a nice job with that because they can run the ball at you, too.”
Having faced both teams this season, Johnson said he was deeply interested to see what happens when Steamboat’s Corvette offense and small, quick defense runs into Pueblo’s brick wall approach.
“Pueblo Central can really wear people down because they’re so big,” he said. “Getting off the field for Steamboat will be very important. Getting those three-and-outs and getting out of there will be key. We didn’t do a very good job of that.”
Pueblo Central stumbled to a disappointing 2-8 record in 2008, its first season after dropping down to Class 3A football. The Wildcats had to forfeit two games that would have been wins but still fell short of pre-season playoff hopes.
The players might have taken all their frustration out on their 2009 opponents. With a massive senior class that makes up the bulk of the team’s talent, Pueblo Central has steamrolled its way to the semifinals.
It has notched three shutouts on the season and, in the past two weeks, thumped Western Slope playoff contenders Palisade and Delta.
The Wildcats won those matchups by a combined score of 68-7.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Craddock said. “We’ve had a great time, just like I’m sure the other three teams have been. These kids are handling it all pretty well.”
Pueblo Central won its first playoff game in 38 years this season, and the state semifinals are decidedly foreign territory.
Steamboat, meanwhile, is playing in its third semifinal in seven years and has missed the playoffs only once in that span.
“This year has been living up to expectations,” Finch said. “It’s almost harder to do that when they’re set so high, but it’s been fun. Our boys have done what people expect them to do, and that’s pretty amazing.”
Both teams are as eager to advance as they are happy to be here.
“We’re all excited to start this game,” Steamboat senior Keenan Starbuck said. “We’ve done it before. We know we can do it. We’ll just do what we do.”