When Central High School’s baseball team began its season, the Warriors didn’t know their finale would come so soon after its opener.
Central played March 12, losing 11-2 to Rock Canyon before bouncing back with a 15-4 romp over Rampart. The season began, and ended, with a split. Later that day, the Colorado High School Activities Association suspended (and later canceled) all spring sports because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Just like that, baseball at the high school level was over for 11 seniors. Then Grand Mesa Little League stepped in.
“There were some conversations about (having a high school league) earlier prior to COVID-19 because Little League has a cut-off at 15,” Grand Mesa Baseball President Chris Riley said. “Players in that 16-18 range who may not be playing at the high school level had no option to play. What we found with Little League was, by 13 years old 70% of kids had stopped playing baseball. We looked for ways within the Little League program to continue their development further.
”If a kid were to not make his high school team, the likelihood of continuing to play is low, so we wanted to have options for those kids.”
Organizers of Grand Mesa Baseball decided to shelve the idea because of potential financial constraints. Once the coronavirus surged, however, Riley and others had a change of heart.
“There was some back-and-forth on whether we would have the program at all, and at one point we decided it probably wouldn’t be worth it,” Riley said. “Then COVID hit and I had kids in that age range who were concerned if there was anything we could do. We had already looked at what it would take to do it, so we decided to play.”
The Grand Mesa High School Baseball League began play June 26 with seven teams composed of 108 high school players. Anyone from incoming freshmen to seniors who have already graduated are accepted, giving the league an age range of 14-18. Players come from high schools across the Grand Valley, as well as Rifle.
Teams must have a continuous batting order and all players must play for a minimum of six consecutive outs, ensuring everyone the opportunity to see the field.
The seven teams are the Lions, Tigers, Mavericks, Renegades, Colts, Bears and Aces. Riley said most of the baseball has been entertaining, comparing it to the nature of the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.
“There were concerns that the baseball might not be competitive, but the reality is that if Central or Grand Junction high schools have 15 kids come out for a team, they’re not looking at ‘Well, this kid’s a senior and this kid’s a freshman, so we can’t fill the team,’ ” Riley said. “They’re still gonna fill the team. It’s a local program but I’ve sat in for 12 games and only about two of them have been, well, boring. The others have been generally good baseball.”
Two examples of seniors who have used the moment to play more prep-level baseball are Cole Klinzmann and Koby Rubalcaba, a duo of Central graduates who hope to play college ball but lost their final season to display their skills.
Klinzmann hopes to join the team at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling. Rubalcaba has his sights set on the Colorado Mesa University squad. Each of them are using the games as a way to improve, but their primary motivations differ.
“What I’m getting out of the league is that it’s good with reps,” Klinzmann said. “It’s pretty much like practice on the field during the game. It’s about working on your craft and getting better for the upcoming season.”
Where Klinzmann sees a unique form of practice, Rubalcaba sees competition, including against some of his former fellow Warriors.
“I just think it’s fun,” Rubalcaba said. “It’s fun to play with the people I’ve been playing with for 4, 5, 6 years, but at the same time, when you get that competition against you, it’s so much fun to be in the heat of the moment where anything can happen.”
The league hosts games every weekday night at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at the baseball facility at 518 28¾ Road. Those who attend are encouraged to maintain social distancing.
The coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges to Grand Mesa Baseball in ensuring a safe experience for its players. Additional handwashing stations can be found at the park and plenty of hand sanitizer is provided in the dugout. Grand Mesa Little League also donated nearly 100 helmets to the High School Baseball League in order to prevent sharing equipment between more than 100 players.
As long as efforts are in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, Grand Mesa Baseball will continue to delight starved baseball fans this summer.
While players like Rubalcaba and Klinzmann could earn a spot playing at the next level, for many, the Grand Mesa High School Baseball League will be some seniors’ finale on the diamond.
“Baseball’s a game that affords a select few the opportunity to move beyond, but for most kids, high school is the last place they’ll play,” Riley said. “Having that season canceled, this is a game that kids play from the time they’re 3-4 years old and then, all of a sudden, they didn’t have that opportunity. I know that hurt kids. The ability for kids to still be able to take the field all summer, the ability for their parents to know the one game they saw in March wasn’t the last game they would see their kid play. As a league, it feels good to be able to provide that.
”Knowing there’s 108 kids who have an opportunity to play who wouldn’t otherwise is a really good feeling.”