Moffat County-Steamboat rivalry provides high energy in Bulldog basketball home opener
CRAIG — Though they usually get a chance to check each other out sooner in the season on the court or from the bleachers, Moffat County High School varsity basketball teams and Highway 40 rivals Steamboat Springs had their only faceoff of the winter Wednesday night.
The annual matchup of the Bulldog and Sailor squads served as Moffat County’s home opener and the only varsity games in the Dog Pound for December as players come to the end of the early season.
Sailor girls are already in their best season since 2015-16 after back-to-back 0-23 stretches, at last snapping a 52-game cold streak with a 52-37 win over Conifer in the Steamboat Shoot-Out, also the highest scoring game for them in more than two years.
The ladies in red were on the receiving end of a bitter beatdown by their blue-and-white-clad hosts, with MoCo ready for a decisive victory after a 1-2 weekend at the Glenwood Springs Demon Invitational.
Still stinging from the tournament losses to Cañon City and Alamosa, Lady Bulldogs set to work swiftly to see that another entry in the loss column wouldn’t be happening, ultimately ending the night in front at 54-21, a fitting complement to the first game of the night as Lady Bulldog junior varsity rolled past Steamboat 40-10.
MoCo varsity took command immediately, leaping to a 10-0 lead by the five-minute mark and 14-0 by the conclusion of the first period.
While it was looking like Steamboat might go the whole opening half without a successful bucket as Bulldogs kept running up the score, Katie Lake hit a layup and two free throws to make it 26-4, while Madie Weber responded with one last field goal for a 28-4 break.
A 12-2 run for the Dogs was permeated by another basket by Lake amid plentiful points by Tiffany Hildebrnadt, Halle Hamilton and Kinlie Brennise before Sailor Jaycee May knocked down a long jumper. A shot beneath by Jaidyn Steele ended the third quarter 42-8.
“I’m glad we started with an easier opponent, but nonetheless our team didn’t stop or slow down, and I was really impressed with them,” Halle Hamilton said. “I think our team can always push it and take it to the next level.”
The Sailors caught some momentum in the fourth, including a three-pointer by Shelbee Weis, in a 13-12 last period.
Steamboat coach George Ibarra said he held no illusions that the rivalry game would be anything but difficult, though his players’ performance was still what he wanted to see.
“What it comes down to is confidence,” he said. “Once they started getting that, they started getting some points on the board. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
For the Bulldogs, Brennise was the points leader for the evening at 13 total, plus two from outside. Halle Hamilton, Hildy and Weber followed with eight apiece, and Stephenie Swindler put up seven.
Full steam ahead
Like their female comrades, Moffat County boys sought another win after a pair of defeats in Glenwood to Faith Christian and Alamosa. They had their work cut out for them with the Sailors, whose five-game streak of triumphs included the first championship in their home tourney in more than a decade.
A student section wearing Santa hats gave the home team plenty of ho-ho-hope as the Dogs claimed a 10-9 lead at the end of the first period, with Torin Reed draining a triple just before the buzzer.
Both teams suffered a second quarter shooting drought, and with 16 combined attempts from the perimeter, neither was having much luck until late in the half as Trace Walker and Tyler Doyne each sank a long shot that gave them the 19-15 advantage.
The second half energy mojo belonged to MoCo all over the floor as Jerod Chacon drilled two 3’s in succession while persistence beneath the rim by Landen Najera and Connor Murphy helped add to a 30-29 lead after three quarters.
Still, Steamboat sailed into the sunset with its sixth straight victory as they showed their best was yet to come, capitalizing on shaky shooting on the Bulldog side and combining for 27 points in the last eight minutes between post shooting and Moffat fouls to win 56-40.
As he put up a fight in the paint, big man Najera had to head off the court temporarily with two minutes left after he caught a blow to the gut.
“I was going in for a block, jumped in and just got the wind knocked out of me,” Najera said. “We were getting good shots, but we could’ve gotten better passes placed in the lanes. That was a good team right there we lost to.”
MCHS coach Eric Hamilton concurred that Steamboat was more of a challenge than he’d expected.
“To be in the lead after three quarters against a team like that is still a success to me,” he said. “They had a really nice run in the fourth, but we answered every other thing they threw at us until then. I know we improved tonight.”
Mac Riniker’s 19 points was the Sailors’ top tally for the night, while Reed and Chacon led in scoring for the Dogs at 10 points each.
A JV match-up was likewise a tough run for the Dogs, who couldn’t quite come back late in the game to fall 45-39.
The first home game for JV follows a 3-0 performance at the previous weekend’s White River Electric Shootout in Meeker, ending with an 87-29 blowout against the Cowboys complete with 27 points from Myles Simpson and 24 from Jordan Carlson, the latter of whom suited up for the varsity game.
“We played good defense, ran our fastbreak and just played together as a team,” JV coach Seth Watson said. “We have a lot of talent this year on JV and C, so they’re pushing each other, working hard and hopefully it’s that way for the whole year.”
Heading into break
Moffat County and Steamboat each will keep their jerseys at the ready for the coming weekend.
Sailor girls (1-5) host Fort Lupton and Mitchell Friday and Saturday, respectively, while the Steamboat guys (6-1) bring in Mead Saturday.
Both MCHS teams will spend Saturday in Rifle, which will wrap competition for boys (2-5) until January.
“We really need a W bad going into break, and Rifle’s playing some good ball this year. At their house it’ll be a tough game,” Eric Hamilton said.
He added that his focus is on longevity to get players where they need to be for the 3A Western Slope League part of the season that begins in the new year.
“We’re working toward it, and I think these guys will be here for it,” he said.
After meeting the Bears, Bulldog girls (4-3) will do battle in Grand Junction Dec. 18 against the Central Warriors.
The coming games will be a stronger indicator of how the team will handle a shifting game plan, girls coach Jim Loughran said, noting that he wants to see athletes respond better to a press by opponents and continue to work out weakness in their own defense.
“It’s game by game for us. We’ve got to grow, and we’ll have a couple tough games to check where we are,” he said. “It’s all a work in progress.”
A blend of Northwest Colorado imagery and splashy colors now greets Craig drivers and pedestrians.