Best in the West: Sailors take league championship
Steamboat blasts Battle Mountain to take Western Slope title
Edwards — After the rough start and the abrupt swing, the ugly sets and the smooth, the big blocks, the powerful kills and the diving saves, there was a wild celebration on the Battle Mountain High School court in Edwards on Thursday.
Several Steamboat Springs players fell to their knees, and others jumped for joy. Those on the bench rushed to join their teammates near the net, and the coaches exchanged warm embraces and strong handshakes.
After the shouting and the screaming, the hugging and the crying, it seemed there might not be much emotion left.
How could there be? Steamboat went on the road to beat its rival, Battle Mountain, in four sets, 17-25, 25-20, 25-18, 25-19, locking up its first Western Slope League volleyball championship in 13 years and, in all likelihood, the chance to play host to the regional tournament, slated for Nov. 7.
Still, after a taxing match and the draining celebration, coach Wendy Hall struggled to sum up just what it all meant, a bit more emotion seeping out on a night soaked in it.
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“It’s huge,” Hall said, her voice catching and her eyes flicking toward the ceiling.
She paused and looked back.
“We’ve been in this together since they were in like seventh grade,” she said.
From the top of the roster to the bottom, the Sailors could only attempt to sum up what it all meant.
Steamboat hadn’t won more than a set in Edwards since 2011, and it hadn’t won the league title since 2002. That was a major goal for a group of 10 seniors, many of whom have been playing together since they were introduced to the sport.
They’ve gathered to work out at 6 a.m. during the summer, played together on club teams for years and sweated through more practices than any of them could ever count.
“This has been our goal since sophomore year, when we really figured out we had something,” senior Annie Osbourn said. “This means everything.”
She wasn’t alone.
“It’s the most fulfilling feeling I’ve ever had,” senior Maddie Clock added.
“Every year,” senior Hayley Johnson said, “we try to get better just for this reason.”
Early, it looked like the trip might be mired in frustration rather than celebration.
The Sailors swept Battle Mountain when they met earlier this month in Steamboat, but the Huskies made big-time adjustments and, powered by some senior-night emotion of their own, dominated the first set.
They were hitting harder and playing better, and it appeared they might win, simultaneously lifting themselves and dropping Steamboat into a four-team tie for first place in the league.
“We spent time trying to refine our serve game and our defense against their outside hitters,” Battle Mountain coach Jason Fitzgerald said. “We really needed to defend better, and we did.”
The Sailors finally clicked midway through the second set. They took their first lead of the night, 12-11, on a Huskies’ error, then got strong hitting from senior Jenna Miller and Hayley Johnson to close out the set late.
They cruised in the third set, then built a lead in the fourth. Battle didn’t go easily, of course, but Steamboat scored six of the night’s final seven points to sew up its biggest victory in more than a decade.
“Steamboat absolutely deserves to be the league champions,” Fitzgerald said. “We gave them the best we could, and they had an answer for it.”
Fitzgerald offered congratulations as the Sailors celebrated but then drifted away with the rest of the Huskies, and soon, most of those remaining on the court were red-cheeked, teary eyed Steamboat players, coaches and fans.
They’d survived a thrilling season and persevered through a gritty match, but they hadn’t spent all their emotion quite yet.
Hall’s voice caught again, and tears well up as she tried to sum up a team, a season and a night.
“I wanted this for them so bad,” she said, “so it means a lot.”
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The Longevity Project event, sponsored by Steamboat Pilot & Today, has shifted from in-person to virtual. The keynote speaker Kevin Hines contracted COVID-19, and he will now be presenting his talk remotely.