The arms race
Gene Taylor's relying on fresh pitchers this summer
Heading into the summer, Dave Jahnke needed pitching.
The coach of Gene Taylor’s American Legion baseball team had relied on position players from District 51 teams, whether or not they’d pitched for their high school team, to toe the rubber over the past few years.
Those athletes carried Gene Taylor’s to a Colorado American Legion Baseball championship in 2015 and four title game appearances in the past five years.
But whether it was other sports or different baseball clubs, many of the athletes typically available to Jahnke and his coaching staff were elsewhere. So Jahnke had to dig a little deeper.
The search led him to Kale Litzelman, a college-bound pitcher from Hotchkiss coming off Tommy John surgery.
Litzelman was a key contributor to the Bulldogs’ successful season and yet another playoff run under coach Blake Carlquist, a former Colorado Mesa outfielder who has led Hotchkiss to a 55-12 record over the past three seasons.
Jahnke said he thinks very highly of Carlquist and had been pursuing various Hotchkiss players to join Gene Taylor’s for the summer. With Litzelman, it worked out.
“(Carlquist) had a lot of kids that he was trying to push this way,” Jahnke said. “Kale was one of the first kids I called and right away he said ‘I want to play.’ He lives an hour-and-a-half away and he’s made a commitment to be at almost every practice. He comes down here every day and competes. He’s a tough competitor and you see it when he’s out there pitching. He wants to execute every pitch 100 percent perfectly.
“It’s been great having him here.”
Litzelman has been one of the pitchers for Gene Taylor’s, logging nearly 30 innings. He’s combined with Palisade’s Brett Wagner and Central’s Dakota Dunham — two pitchers who largely worked in relief for their respective high school teams — to eat up the majority of the team’s innings. Trey Morrill, Fruita’s ace this past season, has pitched several innings as well despite other sports camps on his schedule.
Litzelman, a right-hander, said he was excited to face elevated competition before he heads to Western Nebraska Community College.
“It’s a long drive, but I love the competition and I’ve never played this much baseball in one summer,” Litzelman said. “It’s good to come down and have this level of competition and battle with these guys. I needed these innings to be ready to pitch at the college level and it’s a good step up competitively.”
That competition has left Gene Taylor’s with a losing record, 10-18, but the record doesn’t tell the entire story. Sure, there were games where Gene Taylor’s was blown out, but there were also games where they hung with tough opponents. They lost two one-run games to open the season at the Cherry Creek Classic, then a blowout loss to a Slammers club — one of the top programs in the state — before losing by one run to a different Slammers club. Gene Taylor’s stumbled through the Tony Andenucio Tournament in Pueblo before picking up wins against Oklahoma City and Merced, California, at a tournament in Las Vegas.
Now that they’re in the heart of league play, Gene Taylor’s has several home games to close out the season and an opportunity to peak for the state tournament starting July 26.
“The record isn’t really indicative of how the season has gone,” Jahnke said. “We’ve been in a lot of close games — a lot of one-run games that could have gone either way. We were looking at it early in the season, when we were 6-10 or 6-11 and we had lost four one-run games. We were looking at that and if those games turn out differently, we’re probably in a different spot in terms of record and how we’re feeling.
“And we are getting better. The kids have progressed through the year and they’re doing all the things that we try to teach them. We’ve been preaching that the end of the year, that state tournament coming up, that’s what we’re playing for.”
The team has come together for league season, too, sweeping Fairview and splitting with Rocky Mountain this week to win three of their past four. Gene Taylor’s will next face the Greeley Gojos in a doubleheader starting 1 p.m. on Friday at Palisade High School.
Morrill said the team has started to jell at the end of the season.
“I really feel like we can do some damage in this league,” Morrill said. “It started off a little rough, but I know we’re a heck of a lot better than our record shows.”