John F. Russell: Shootout brings back memories of another big game, state title | SteamboatToday.com

John F. Russell: Shootout brings back memories of another big game, state title

Steamboat Springs High School girls soccer players rush the field after beating Silver Creek in penalty kicks Saturday at Gardner Field.

— By the time players lined up for a sudden-death penalty shootout at the end of Saturday's second-round soccer playoff game at Gardner Field, the stands were packed with fans, and those who arrived late lined the fence outside the stadium hoping to catch a glimpse of the thrilling conclusion.

It's something that rarely happens in Steamboat Springs, and for most of the fans, the idea that the final score of a high school game would be decided by the foot of a shooter or the hands of a goalie was something new. A moment this big is something most soccer fans, players and coaches never experience.

But this is not the case for Jim Dudley, who was there cheering for the Sailors on Saturday at Gardner Field.

The view from the stands was a little different than the one Dudley had back in 1998 when he found himself standing on the sidelines in a very similar situation. That year, he was the head coach as the Steamboat girls team advanced through the playoff brackets en route to the championships game against Palisade.

That year, the sun had set on Englewood Stadium by the time the Sailors and the Bulldogs had battled through two overtime periods and took the field for the final tie-breaker — a shootout to decide which team would be crowned the state champion. In the end, it was Steamboat that prevailed.

There is no question Saturday's shootout brought back a flood of memories for the retired doctor, who stepped down as head coach of the Sailors girls soccer program at the end of the 2001 season. But Dudley's love of the game and his desire to teach young players the skills they need to play the game is still strong.

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In fact, he had to leave at halftime of Saturday's game to go coach a U11 girls team, but he raced back to the high school in time to watch concluding few minutes of the final overtime period and the shootout.

"It was exciting," Dudley said about the conclusion of Saturday's game. "Of course, it brought back a lot of memories."

But the coach noted also that things were different in Steamboat when his team won the title. Today, Steamboat has to face much larger teams in the 4A division, and the level of high school soccer across the state keeps getting better every year. But he does see some similarities in the two Steamboat teams.

"These girls play really beautiful soccer. The way they pass, the way they move the ball is incredible. They are really fun to watch," Dudley said about this year's Steamboat team. "They don't play the game because their parents told them to play, and they don't play it because they want to go to college. They play the game because they love it, and you can see that on the field."

Dudley said he will always remember the 1998 season, and the determination the girls on his team showed in getting to the finals and walking off the field winners. He said he saw that same determination on the field Saturday, and he thinks the Steamboat girls have what it takes to return to the championship game this time.

But the longtime coach also understands that nothing is ever guaranteed on the athletic playing field, and to get to that final game, the team will need to step up the level of their game with every round because that's exactly what the other teams will be doing.

"The teams just keep getting better, and winning gets harder with every round," Dudley said. "I really think this team has what it takes to get to the finals."

Steamboat is sure to face its biggest challenge of the season Thursday, when it travels to Colorado Springs to take on top-seeded Lewis Palmer in the quarterfinals.

"This is the gravy," Dudley said of the road to the state championship. "It's an opportunity to play against the best teams in the state, and it's a bonus just to get to play the game."

Looking back, Dudley said the state title is something he will always cherish, but he isn't sure where it ranks on his list of accomplishments as a coach. He said sometimes the biggest rewards have nothing to do with winning, or even playing in a game.

One of his best memories came last year, when he was acknowledged by a group of graduating seniors he had worked with through the club system when they were younger.

"Just knowing that you influenced a group of young players in a positive way is very special," Dudley said. "I don't think it's fair to compare that to something like winning a title."

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966