Moffat County senior Wyatt Boatright part of growing Steamboat hockey program | CraigDailyPress.com

Moffat County senior Wyatt Boatright part of growing Steamboat hockey program

Leah Vann/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Steamboat Springs junior Alexa Paoli, left, and Moffat County High School senior Wyatt Boatright are new to the Steamboat Springs varsity hockey team.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — New players, a new team, a new league and a new year is the theme for Steamboat Springs High School hockey this season.

Hockey has been booming over the years as a sport in Steamboat, but the Sailors have not had a junior varsity team.

"From youth hockey to the high school varsity team, there was a gap," Steamboat varsity head coach Ernie Thiel said. "For kids who weren’t eligible, they had outgrown the youth hockey program to a degree and they weren’t ready for varsity. There wasn’t a program appropriate with their age, so a lot of kids were quitting hockey at the age of 14 or 15. What we want to do now is to keep kids playing hockey until they’re 18."

The Sailors are filling that void and have assembled their first-ever, school-sanctioned junior varsity team. The JV squad will have 17 players, including four dual-roster players who will split time on varsity and JV, and the varsity roster has 18 players.

The junior varsity team plays a 12-game, regular season schedule, and the varsity has 19 games.

"If we didn’t do something, then there would be a lot of kids without a place to play," said Brian Ripley, director of youth hockey.

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In the past, the varsity team has competed in the Pinnacle League, which include a variety of teams from the Front Range, and this year, Steamboat moves to the Peak League, which includes Aspen, Battle Mountain, Crested Butte and Summit.

Thiel says that in his 15 years of coaching, he's seen hockey in Steamboat Springs grow at all levels, including the adult league, which boasts 14 teams as compared to the four when he first started.

"It’s a fun sport people can learn as adults at the entry level," Thiel said. "Then they become passionate about it, and their kids coming up become passionate about it."

Wyatt Boatright, a senior from Moffat County High School, joined the team this year.

"I want to play at the highest level," Boatright said. "I wanted to play last year, but the schedule got in the way of school … this year, I’ve been able to do it, and I’ve been blessed."

Thiel said Boatright's work ethic makes him a strong leader on the team. He takes advantage of the ice time he gets four days a week in Steamboat Springs.

Joining Boatright is junior Alexa Paoli, who competed with Team Colorado, a highly competitive, all-girls travel team out of Denver. Paoli grew up playing boys hockey until she was 14. Paoli is currently the only girl on the boys varsity hockey team.

"I played on a high-level team in Denver, and it was just too much traveling and I enjoy boys hockey," Paoli said. "It’s a different atmosphere, it’s more intense I feel. I grew up knowing all these kids, and I played on the fall team."

Paoli said she feels like one of the guys, and she's able to handle the occasional teasing.

"There’s always that doubt," Paoli said. "When I played bantams, me and one other girl made the A team and everyone was like, 'Oh, they’re girls they can’t play at this level.' You just gotta show them that you’re not able to be teased easily."

Thiel said Paoli is going to advance her game quickly through the varsity program.

"She is really starting to come into her own as far as ability goes," Thiel said. "It's pretty challenging for her to compete on this level, but I think she’s up for the challenge, and we look forward to seeing what she can do."

Steamboat Springs has a girls-only hockey program at the youth level, including a U19 team that includes high school-aged girls, but there isn't a school-sanctioned varsity team for girls.

But those things take time, and with the advent of a junior varsity program to develop more high school players, Thiel looks forward to seeing where the next step leads.

"If the JV program is as successful as we hope it is this year, maybe we’ll have a little more weight in those conversations as to why we need to legitimize that with the girls." Thiel added.

To reach Leah Vann, call 970-871-4253, email lvann@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @LVann_Sports.