The best team no one sees
It’s quite likely the best team in Grand Junction you’ve never seen play.
It’s the curse of college baseball teams that slog through chilly — and downright cold — game days in February, March and April, just hoping for a warm front to show up on weekends.
The Colorado Mesa baseball team is 37-7, 31-3 in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, ranked fourth in the nation and No. 1 in the South Central Region.
And oh, yeah, the Mavericks wrapped up their 20th regular-season conference title, the seventh in the past nine seasons, nearly a month before the end of the regular season. Entering the final weekend, CMU has a whopping 11-game lead on the field.
Only one month ago, the Mavericks’ women’s basketball team had those exact same lofty rankings. They were playing in front of packed houses at Brownson Arena, topping out at 1,927 for the regional championship game and was the talk of the town.
Friday night, the baseball team drew 2,873 fans to Suplizio Field for its annual Little League/Record Attendance Night, always the best crowd of the season.
“Nice crowd,” skipper Chris Hanks said after the Mavs rallied from a 4-3 deficit to blow out Regis 15-5. “That crowd in Brownson Arena seems packed, doesn’t it? You know what I mean? It’s just such a big stadium, but it was a nice crowd.”
Hanks would love to see 2,800 every game, but knows that’s asking a bit much.
“I think we fight weather, and baseball is a slower game (than basketball),” he said. “I can’t answer (why college baseball doesn’t draw well).”
This team, though, plays a good brand of baseball, and the crowd Friday night responded.
Little Leaguers were hanging on the fence, jumping up and down with every home run. The Mavericks, perhaps a little juiced by the big crowd, obliged by hitting five out of the park.
Baseball fans in Grand Junction know the game, and it wasn’t only the kids whooping and hollering. Their parents were on their feet cheering as CMU rallied with a seven-run sixth inning.
After first baseman Kevin Mitchell hit his second home run of the night and headed to the dugout, a group of Little Leaguers camped near the Mavericks’ dugout started chanting “Thir-tee-four! Thir-tee-four! Thir-tee-four!”
Maybe they were hoping for a curtain call. I’m pretty sure they didn’t know Mitchell’s name, but that didn’t matter. He was their guy.
“Hopefully some of them will keep coming back,” Hanks said of the attendance night fans.
Apparently some did — Saturday’s doubleheader drew nearly 500 fans and Sunday’s attendance was listed at 376, higher than the average home game, and more than most teams in the conference draw.
Most home crowds are in the 200-person range, families, friends and girlfriends. Some die-hard baseball fans who will bundle up no matter what the conditions.
Baseball does move slowly, too slowly when it’s 42 degrees, but here’s the deal: It’s May.
Temperatures are warming up and if all goes as the Mavs hope, you’ve got three more weekends to catch their act.
Colorado Mesa plays Colorado School of Mines in doubleheaders Friday and Saturday at Suplizio.
The teams are taking Sunday off to rest up for next week’s RMAC tournament (May 8-11), also at the friendly confines of Suplizio Field. Mesa has won 10 RMAC tournament titles, the most recent in 2011.
As the top-ranked team in the South Central Region, if CMU wins the conference tournament, the Mavericks are a lock — just like basketball — to host the regional tournament.
A trip to the Division II World Series is the prize for the regional champ.
Mesa has accomplished that once, in 2009, when it won the Central Region tourney, also at Suplizio.
These guys are worth a trip to the park.
Gone are the days of the Mavs sitting back and jacking three-run home runs, although you’d never have known that Friday night.
They move runners, steal bases, take extra bases, hit the ball in the gap. They can score in bunches and celebrate like Little Leaguers when they do.
Mesa has four solid starting pitchers, depth in the bullpen, hits up and down the lineup and plays good defense.
“I think we have a pretty good product,” Hanks said. “We’d encourage people to come out the next couple of weeks and watch some of these guys play. Erik Kozel plays hard, Jake Kluge plays with enthusiasm, they all do.
“Nate Robertson, a local kid (Montrose), is doing well, Braden Box makes stuff happen, Justin Rosales ... I think they’re fun to watch.”
And now’s the time to go watch.