JOHNSTOWN — The pregame warmups were popping on Friday night at the Nelson Farms fields, where NoCo Roughnecks head coach Tyler Blood was attempting to prepare his squad for a chance at a bit of team history this weekend.
Then, in a close and chirpy game against Mile High Collegiate Baseball League foe Colorado Khaos, the Roughnecks began their quest for the league tournament title and a bid into the prestigious summer event known as the National Baseball Congress World Series.
It's been just three short years since Erie's Harold Simmons organized the Roughnecks, but it's been a pretty rapid climb to success on the diamond with the central focus being giving local collegiate players a place to play and develop.
For some, the process has included a maturation in the sport through the Roughnecks high school teams, a 19U graduate team and eventually to the college team.
About one-third of the 2018 collegiate team — which secured the No. 1 seed in the league tournament that continued Saturday and will crown a champion on Sunday — is comprised of players who at least spent time on the 19U grad team.
"A lot of these kids played with us as high school kids or played for our grad team, and to have them back ... it's good to provide them a place to play," said Simmons, who has a total of nine teams under the Roughnecks umbrella. "They're just guys trying to survive the college baseball grind and need a place to play. I'm glad we've been able to provide that, for sure.
"The first year we were pretty average, and last year Ty and them gave it a go and finished third. To go into this tournament as the one seed and have a real possibility of being in the NBC World Series is pretty special."
Erie grad Hunter Nelson and Frederick's Bryce Shirley join Erie's Garrett Mayers and Dawson School's Tanner Fulkerson as BoCo-area members for this summer. The Roughnecks roster also include players from Mountain View and Thompson Valley in Loveland, and Roosevelt in Johnstown.
It's a scrappy group of guys, the second-year coach Blood said, but a group that is striving not only to help themselves get better for the respective college seasons. The carrot dangling in front of them — that being a berth in the 84th NBC World Series in Wichita, Kansas (July 27-August 11) — would be a first for the team.
"We're lucky to have a lot of these kids who were playing for us before we even had the college team, and to continue to build them up and push them forward ... Harold has done an amazing job with this thing," said Blood, who coaches at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling. "It's nice for them to want to come back and that they appreciate what they'd been given here.
"This team has battled like crazy this year ... as a squad, they play the game together very well. They're a bunch of scrubs, and they're my type of players."
Nelson and Shirley both played at Western Nebraska Community College this past spring — Nelson will be returning there, while Shirley is transferring to Colorado Mesa and will play on the club baseball team initially.
The Roughnecks have provided a good experience for both, they agreed, and this summer in particular has been a show of resiliency after a 1-6 start. They entered Saturday's portion of the double-elimination tournament at 18-11 overall.
"It's been cool coming back and playing with a lot of these guys every summer," said Nelson, who actually played for the Longmont-Erie summer team known as the Trogers prior to the identity change. "We created a good bond last year, but it's cool to see how it's progressed and how we fit together and got better."
"Coming back from college, I was pumped to come play for this team," Shirley added. "I feel like I've gotten better each and every day, and you take the hard days and turn them to good. You have to grow as a player and this is where it all starts. Everybody competes."
Although he would not deny out-of-state players a chance to join the Roughnecks in future seasons, Simmons said he hopes to see more local players come up through the organization as the club gets more established.
In the MHCBL, there are a few good examples to follow. The Greeley Grays are one of Colorado's long-established summer teams, as are the Spradley Collegians based out of Pueblo. The Colorado Cyclones are considered the team to beat, having already clinched a berth in the NBC World Series by winning the regular season title.
"You have a couple of institutions in Greeley and Pueblo that have been around a long time," Simmons said.
Like the Roughnecks, the Boulder Collegians are also trying to work their way into the NBC Series through a league tournament championship. Matt Jensen's Collegians entered the Rocky Mountain Baseball League double-elimination tournament as the No. 4 seed and beat the Rough Riders on Thursday to forge ahead in the winner's bracket.