Sailors football defense propels team to 6-0 start |

Sailors football defense propels team to 6-0 start

Luke Graham

Steamboat Springs High School football player Bryce Mayo goes for a sack during Friday's game against Rifle High School. The improvement in toughness of the Steamboat defense has helped the Sailors to a 6-0 record for the season.

— In the offseason, nothing is required and nothing is expected.

But look around the Steamboat Springs High School football locker room, particularly to the defensive side of the ball, and that’s exactly where starting the season 6-0 began.

For all the accolades the Sailors offense gets – and rightfully so – the biggest change in Steamboat’s demeanor this season might simply be the group known as Wild Dogs.

“The defense has been phenomenal,” Steamboat coach Aaron Finch said after Friday’s 34-0 win against Rifle. “They’re taking the correct angles, they’re hitting and are one of the main reasons we’re winning games.”

For a defense giving up just 242 yards and 14 points a game, it hasn’t been a philosophical or schematic change.

Maybe more so than anything else, Steamboat defensive coordinator Lonn Clementson said, it’s been a simple change in attitude.

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Sure, Steamboat went 8-3 last season, but it beat the teams it was supposed to. In its three losses – to Palisade, Glenwood Springs and Pueblo County – the Steamboat defense got gashed.

Clementson said those gashes still are open and in the players’ minds.

He said when they looked at the defensive side of the ball, one thing kept coming up: toughness.

“The defense is built around a support system, and the type of scheme we run lends itself to the type of player we get,” he said, “smart, athletic, fast young men.”

The Steamboat defense starts one player weighing more than 200 pounds, and in the losses last season usually faced bigger offensive lines.

Clementson said the coaching staff realized that to counter that, they’d have to be tougher.

That’s when it started.

After Thanksgiving, Clementson had a group of 10, 15 and sometimes 20 guys show up in the weight room.

Normally, the weight room

would be open three days a week. This group wanted it open Fridays, but Clementson said that in the past maybe one or two guys would show up Friday.

This offseason, however, there was that same core group of 10, 15 or 20 guys.

“Any time we have success defensively, it all starts in the weight room,” he said. “To get to the next level, it has to.”

But the weight room became more than just a place to bulk up and get faster. It was the place players built that toughness.

“That was built in November, December, January and February in the squat rack,” Clementson said. “We talked about adding this element of toughness.”

Maybe no play in the season spoke to the toughness like a 4th-and-3 against Palisade late in the fourth quarter.

The Bulldogs, known for their toughness and willingness to do anything to win, were driving for the tying score. They had a 4th-and-3, and Palisade coach John Arledge later would say he likes his team’s chances in that situation.

But the Steamboat defense – giving up at least 30 pounds at every position inside the box – got the stop and the win.

“Both teams were exhausted,” Clementson said. “Palisade has always been known for its toughness. The only time we can beat Palisade is when we match their toughness. We haven’t been able to do that year in and year out. You have to get a stop and prevent them from scoring. That’s almost exactly what it’s like when you’re doing 20 reps of squats and you’re at 17.

“That play was toughness. That was toughness, desire and heart.”

But the Steamboat defense is far from a finished product, Clementson said. The Palisade game may have been the turning point on the field, but it’s just another step in a building block for a team that has hopes of playing into December.

“I think in that Palisade game we started playing as an 11-man unit,” linebacker Mitch Lekarczyk said. “Everybody was flying to the ball. That’s what we need. We need all 11 going to the ball and hitting people.”

So as the no-name defense continues its trek toward the playoffs, Clementson said players wouldn’t rest on what they’ve done this season.

Early Saturday, the coach already was looking at the first series Friday at Battle Mountain.

Besides, as Clementson and the rest of the Steamboat team will attest, a win in October doesn’t mean a whole lot when it comes time to win games in the playoffs.

“As a coaching staff, we’re really proud of where we are defensively,” Clementson said. “We’re proud, but we are still really humble because we know one big play can change the whole season. It’s being humble and working hard. We don’t care whose name it is.”