BASALT - The Basalt soccer team advanced to the 3A state quarterfinals in five of the past six seasons. To secure a return trip this postseason, the Longhorns will have to beat a relative unknown and then topple the reigning champions.
Despite being ranked as high as sixth by MaxPreps in the days before the release of the bracket, Basalt (9-4-1) nabbed the ninth seed in the 32-team field. And because of a revamped postseason format in which eight teams, not 16, earned the right to host, the Longhorns' pursuit of a championship will begin on turf far from home.
They'll kick off postseason play against No. 24 Pagosa Springs at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Arvada. In earlier action, No. 8 Faith Christian will take on No. 25 Fountain Valley. The winners of each contest will square off at 1 p.m. Saturday with a quarterfinal berth at stake.
"It was a bit of a letdown given where we were (in the rankings) on Saturday night," Basalt head coach Brent Hayes said. "It's frustrating that we're going to miss out on a home game. It's a big deal to those guys who always have to play on the turf, then come play on grass at a higher elevation.
"What we're hoping for now is that we win out and Roaring Fork wins out and we have the quarterfinals here. It's still possible."
Such a scenario is hardly unlikely, however. Should the No. 17 Rams beat 16th-seeded St. Mary's on Friday in Colorado Springs, they'll likely have to square off with top-seeded The Classical Academy in the round of 16.
Hayes is trying his best not to look ahead, particularly given that his squad faces a stern opening test against a Pagosa Springs team he knows nothing about.
"That's kind of one of the scariest games you can think of," Hayes said.
The Pirates won 10 of 14 regular-season games and went 9-3 in Region 5 play, good for second place behind a Telluride squad that nearly pulled off an upset in Basalt in October 2011.
Despite being outplayed by the Miners for much of the final half in last season's playoff opener, the then-sixth-seeded Longhorns made a 23rd minute goal from forward Sean Ryan stand up. They parlayed that into a 4-1 win against Lutheran before falling to Kent Denver by the same margin.
"Pagosa had two close games with Telluride this year, so we know they're a pretty good team," Hayes said. "I don't know if they've been here recently, either, so they really have nothing to lose."
Winners of three of their past games, the Pirates have been stingy on defense this season, allowing little more than a goal per contest. That poses a major concern for Basalt, which has battled through a slew of scoring droughts this fall. In their four losses, the Longhorns scored just three goals.
"It's been our Achilles' heel all year. We've allowed certain teams to stay close that usually shouldn't be able to stick around," Hayes said. "Against teams as good or better than us, we can't get away with that. We're not going to advance that far if we can't finish."
Should it prevail Friday, Basalt likely would take on a battle-tested Faith Christian squad with a deceiving 6-8-1 record. Six of those losses came to 4A and 5A squads - including unbeaten Adams City, the top seed in the 5A tournament. The other two came against conference foes Colorado Academy and Holy Family, 3A's second and fourth seeds, respectively.
The reigning champion Eagles hail from the state's best conference, Region 6, which has six teams in the field, including four of the top eight seeds.
"They're another big private school that has played an incredibly hard schedule," Hayes said. "They're going to be tough for anyone, way tough.
"It's always tough going down there. Something with the turf and (the Front Range), it's a different ball game, and the nerves always get to us. But this team is the most veteran we've had in terms of the number of games played at this level. In their hearts, they know they can play with anybody."
The Longhorns proved that in the past few weeks, handing third-seeded Coal Ridge its only loss and acquitting themselves quite well in a loss to Battle Mountain, the 4A tournament's sixth seed.
Basalt rebounded with two dominating wins in its final regular-season games, outscoring Colorado Rocky Mountain and Vail Mountain schools 15-0.
The stakes and the competition will be much greater Friday.
"They're confident, and I'm confident," Hayes said. "We've had some good practices this week, and they're fired up. It's cold, and it feels like playoff time."