Steamboat football falls to Middle Park on home turf
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There was something beautiful about the perfectly placed pass from Steamboat Springs High School senior quarterback Drew Bowers to junior wide receiver Lowen Epstein on fourth and fifth with 1 minute and 50 seconds left in the fourth.
That’s other than the fact the seemingly yellow incandescent light had finally retreated behind the trees, casting a cooling shade.
It’s still early enough in the evening that a football game wouldn’t normally start at this hour, but the Sailors football team would do anything to host a home game after three weeks on the road. Even if it meant playing in the heat of the day on a middle school field with lines barely visible to the naked eye sitting from a lawn chair on a hill.
So, when Epstein caught that ball in triple coverage, sending the home crowd on the hill to its feet.
But a few plays later, the Steamboat fans would fold up their lawn chairs, blankets and umbrellas, and wipe the sweat off their faces in a 27-20 loss to Middle Park High School.
For most of the night, the Sailors did everything wrong against the Panthers. There were three turnovers in the first half, including a fumble at the 1-yard line, which would’ve tied the game from the very beginning. Instead, the Sailors had to fight back from a 13-0 deficit at halftime.
Now, the Sailors had the ball in Panthers’ territory, down 27-20 with just under 2 minutes left. There was a chance this game wouldn’t end like the past two, a 21-14 loss to Moffat County and a 34-26 loss to Cedaredge.
But Bowers threw two incomplete passes to the left, targeting 6-foot-1 Epstein again, who was matched up against a 5-foot-2 Caleb Kelly from Middle Park.
Epstein leapt in the air, catching the pass on 3rd down with 1:26 left, and all the Sailors needed was an extra point to tie it, or a 2-point conversion to win it.
But the touchdown was called back on offensive pass interference, putting the ball back on the 15. Bowers tried his hand at Epstein two more times, but the first catch was out of bounds to the left and the second was broken up in the middle. Epstein seemed to linger on the ground before getting to his feet, shouting that he had it that time.
“I don’t think we came out ready to play,” Sailors head coach Shaun Baumgartner said. “We need to learn how to start fast and then finish.”
The Panthers burned the Sailors on the pass game in the first half. Junior quarterback Gabe Loberg connected with senior wide receiver Ben Kuhnel for two touchdowns in the first half, the first a 55-yard reception.
Steamboat came into the second half fired up, getting the ball on its own 40. Sophomore Finn Russell broke free up the middle for a 40-yard run, then an 8-yard run.
With the exception of a first-down run by senior Austin Ban, Russell had done it all, catching the touchdown pass and kicking the extra point to make it 13-7.
After holding Middle Park to a three and out, Ban burst up the middle on Steamboat’s next offensive drive for a 73-yard touchdown run. Russell’s extra point would put the Sailors ahead for the first time 14-13.
“I think both those running backs ran hard, Finn [Russell] and Austin [Ban],” Baumgartner said. “They both broke multiple big runs. Our offensive line really came out and established things in the second half and that’s why we got going.”
But the Panthers responded quickly. Kuhnel took a short pass up the field for a 65-yard reception, making the score 20-14. The Sailors’ final touchdown came on a quarterback sneak by Bowers up the middle for a 33-yard touchdown run.
A failed two-point conversion tied it up 20-20 at the end of the third.
This time, Loberg took matters into his own hands, driving up the middle for a run just like Bowers had, putting the Panthers one step ahead at 27-20.
Another Sailors’ drive ended in a fumble, but the defense gave them one last shot before that final string of passes.
“We’ve got to come out and start the game like the way we did in the second half,” Baumgartner said. “We turned the ball over on offense and gave up too many big plays on defense and that was the story of the day that cost us.”
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