Big Winners 2003: Spillane highlights year that leaves sports fans wanting more |

Big Winners 2003: Spillane highlights year that leaves sports fans wanting more

Temperatures were plummeting and a steady wet snow began to fall from the sky as Johnny Spillane stepped onto a makeshift stage set up at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area to address several hundred supporters.

The threatening March weather didn’t dampen spirits as fans cheered Spillane’s — and America’s first — Nordic combined World Championship victory in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

The 20-year-old skier made his gold-medal run 18 days before the celebration, Feb. 28, but it was still fresh in the minds of those who had come out to share in a piece of American Nordic combined history.

“It takes a community to raise a world champion,” Andy Wirth, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. marketing executive, said to the cheering fans.

So it wasn’t surprising that the community came out in force to recognize Spillane’s golden moment, when he became the first American to win a Nordic World Championship gold medal by taking first place in a Nordic combined sprint event.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to win,” Spillane said.

Spillane raced into Nordic combined skiing history as he crossed the finish line 1.3 seconds in front of Germany’s Ronny Ackerman. The news of the American world champion traveled quickly across the Atlantic and became one of the biggest sports stories of 2003.

But the year was just getting started.

One week before Spillane’s World Championship gold, two Routt County wrestlers took center stage on the Pepsi Center floor in Denver.

Hayden’s Kelly Bruchez and Soroco’s Josh Iacovetto defied the odds and advanced all the way to the finals before finishing second in the Colorado state wrestling championships Feb. 22.

In his senior year, Iacovetto came back from a broken leg to take second at 112 pounds after winning the 103-pound title his junior season.

Bruchez, on the other hand, had never placed at the state tournament before, but he made the most of his senior trip, advancing to the 152-pound finals.

“You can’t begin to explain what it was like to wrestle in front of 21,000 people,” Bruchez said. “It was unbelievable.”

Unbelievable aptly describes the seasons shared by a pair of young Routt County track sensations.

Soroco sophomore Andy deGanahl captured Class 2A titles in the 200 and 400 meters on May 17 in Pueblo with times of 22.61 and 49.53 seconds, respectively.

On the same day, Steamboat freshman Jessica Peters capped her first high school season with a state championship in the Class 4A 400 meters at Jefferson County Stadium. Her time of 57.85 was nearly 1 second faster than her closest competitor.

While Peters and deGanahl got a taste of success early in their high school athletic careers, a group of senior football players in South Routt waited four seasons before their dreams came true.

A 7-0 win against Plateau Valley in an Oct. 28 playoff tiebreaker gave the Rams their first state playoff appearance since 1988.

Soroco finished 6-5 overall after falling to eventual state finalist Akron, 34-0, in the opening round, but it mattered little to the Rams.

For the 10 seniors on this year’s squad, it was important that they left winners and perhaps did all they could to spark a change in attitude about football in South Routt.

“Ever since we were freshmen, we were the kids that were supposed to do something,” senior Joel Manzanares said.

In Steamboat Springs, on the other hand, no one was really sure what to expect from the football team with only five returning starters on each side of the ball.

But the wins kept coming, and a group of unproven players showed a county — and a state — what truly great things can happen to a group of undersized kids who play with the team’s goals in mind.

The Sailors finished 11-2 and advanced to the semifinals before the season ended Nov. 22 on a snowy field in Florence.

“Our team has heart and desire that you can’t measure and you can’t see on film,” junior Kevin Dombey said.

One of the primary sources for that passion and heart came from coach Mark Drake, who coached his final season with the Sailors in 2003.

Toward the end of the season, Drake, the head coach for 30 years, told his players that he was retiring. Later, Drake said that he had been forced to resign — one of several personnel controversies to hit the Steamboat Springs School District this year.

“Coaching has been my life and everything to me,” Drake said. “Being able to feel like you’ve had some impact and given the kids some direction makes it all worthwhile.”

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