LOUISVILLE — The NoCo Roughnecks entered the Boulder National Invitational Tournament wanting to prove to the rest of the Front Range what kind of baseball talent Northern Colorado has to offer.
Now that they're one of just eight teams remaining out of the 32 that began the week, it's safe to say they're accomplishing their goal.
Behind a complete-game, four-hit performance by Nate Higgins and a four-RBI day by Mike Berg, the Roughnecks advanced to BNIT quarterfinals with a 6-2 win over Slammers Larrinaga on Friday at Monarch High School. They'll play Slammers Loseke on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. with a trip to Sunday's semifinals on the line.
NoCo will be looking to go 3-0 in the tournament against teams from the Slammers organization based in metropolitan Denver.
"In a big tournament like this, you just keep trying to win games, and every one you win is a blessing," said Berg, who was 3-for-4 with a three-run homer. "You gotta love representing Northern Colorado, for sure."
Despite some tough calls going against them early, perhaps costing Higgins the complete-game shutout, the Roughnecks never blinked. They threatened to score in each frame, totaling 13 hits with all nine batters in the lineup reaching base, including eight who had at least one base knock.
Berg's three-run bomb, his second homer of the tournament, came in the sixth to give Higgins some insurance. But as it turned out, the hurler from Skyline needed only the three runs his team scored in the first three innings.
After an RBI-double by Bryce Shirley in the first, Dylan Norsen led off the third with a walk, then came around to score on a single by Berg. Nate Kage then delivered a single to score Berg to give NoCo a 3-0 lead.
Higgins' day began with a hit batter and a walk in the first, but he wiggled out of the jam and quickly settled in, growing stronger as the game went on. His only damage came in the third on a two-run triple. The Slammers appeared to have hit into an inning-ending double play the previous batter when right fielder Garrett Mayers nearly gunned down a runner trying to tag from second. But the runner was called safe, opening the door for the two-run triple.
Higgins admitted he was initially bitter about the way he lost the shutout, but he quickly moved on and was more than happy to earn the win as a consolation. Over the final four frames, he allowed just two base runners, finishing with three strikeouts while getting the Slammers to fly out a dozen times.
"It takes me a few innings to find my groove, and then once I find it, I feel like I get better. I know the ump's zone and then just go from there, try to throw strikes and make my defense make plays," he said. "We definitely played good baseball. Last game was a little rough for us, but we knew we had good stuff today and could make a run in this thing. We want to take it, and I think we can."
By using just one arm Friday, coach Nate Howell has his pitching set up perfectly for the rest of the tournament, with perhaps three games in two days if NoCo makes it to Sunday's final four at Scott Carpenter Park in Boulder.
"I can't say how important that start was and how in a big situation he came up huge for us. It was amazing, a great effort," Howell said. "An outing like that saves your bullpen and all your relievers going into three more games this weekend. It gives you an opportunity that if you do run into a rough spot, you've got guys that are ready to go because they got the rest."
Roughnecks 6, Slammers Larrinaga 3
At Monarch HS
Roughnecks102 003 0 — 6 13 2
Slammers002 000 0 — 2 4 1
W — Nate Higgins. L — N/A.
Roughnecks hitting (ab-r-h-rbi) — Dylan Norsen 3-2-0-0, Matt Berg 5-1-1-0, Matt Sims 3-1-1-0, Mike Berg 4-2-3-4, Bryce Shirley 4-0-3-1, Hunter Nelson 4-0-1-0, Nate Kage 4-0-2-1, Garrett Mayers 3-0-0-0, Tyler Hamill 4-0-1-0. Totals 34-6-13-6. 2B — Shirley. HR — Mi. Berg. SB — Norsen.
Roughnecks pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) — Higgins 7-4-2-2-2-3.