BROOMFIELD — Not many high school baseball teams — particularly those from smaller schools -- can say they have a former major leaguer as their head coach.
Prospect Ridge Academy can.
Mark Knudson pitched in over 120 games across eight seasons in Major League Baseball and is now in his third year at the helm at Prospect Ridge. The baseball veteran has a wealth of knowledge and experience at all levels of the sport, and that can be an invaluable resource for a young player.
Simple lessons like pitching to contact, throwing strikes, trusting the defense and not walking batters are often easier to internalize when they are being presented by someone with Knudson's level of experience. So far this spring, the Miners are in the midst of a fairly incredible breakthrough campaign.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the team with a former professional pitcher calling the shots is riding a wave of talented arms on its way to what is shaping up to be the program's best season ever.
"We've made leaps and bounds from my freshman year," Miners senior and staff ace Jake Thiret said. "We're working really hard, and we've bonded a lot spending so much time together just getting the field ready to play, but we're also just having fun with it. It's absolutely amazing having coach Knudson to teach us the little ins and outs of pitching, how to start certain guys off certain ways, changing the way I stand on the mound, all of it.
"It's incredible because he knows so much about the game. Then there's the stories he tells us about being in the big leagues, going toe-to-toe with legends ... it's amazing."
Prospect Ridge was established in 2011 and added sports several years later, so the Miners are only now in their third year with a varsity team. Over their first two varsity seasons, the Miners posted a combined record of 7-30. So far this spring, which has been limited by bad weather conditions, the Miners are off to a 6-1 start.
The biggest keys to the Miners' newfound success: pitching, pitching and more pitching.
Two years ago, the Miners pitching staff led their league in walks by over a hundred. So far in 2019, they have posted a team ERA of 2.31 and have won five of their seven games by mercy rule. The Miners pitching staff has posted four shutouts and has allowed three or fewer runs in six of the team's seven games.
The lone outlier to the Miners' pitching dominance this spring was a 19-15 win over Riverdale Ridge on March 21 in which they did not send any of their top arms to the mound and committed six errors in the field.
"We're certainly improved and we know we're improved," Knudson said. "We've pitched really, really well. Maybe we didn't expect to win by 10-run rule in so many games but we expected to be much better this season. This group has grown up a bit and we have a lot of seniors who have played a lot of games at a high level. We're off to a great start and we expect to be competitive in our league. We aren't going to be a doormat anymore.
"Don't get me wrong, we still have a long ways to go. But pitching is the great equalizer and that's how we're going to be able to compete with some of the bigger schools and more established programs."
An All-Metro League First Team pick last season, Thiret has yet to allow an earned run through 15 innings on the mound this spring. He has struck out 34 batters over those 15 innings, which include a five-inning no-hitter against Aspen on March 18. Senior teammate Brandon Huffman also has not allowed an earned run in 10.1 innings on the mound, and junior Austin Schaffer has not been touched for a single run in his five innings of work.
On top of the work they do with their prep team, the Miners have also spent a considerable amount of time training with other former Major League and collegiate players at FAST Baseball in Denver.
"We're really working on doing the little things right," Huffman said. "We've all been doing pretty good. We're all liking our stuff and if we keep on locating, we'll be in tip-top shape. We have a good thing going and when one of us sees another guy go out there and have a great game, 'Hey, I can do that.' And then we just go out there and try to prove it."
The Miners have all the tools at their disposal in order to be an excellent baseball team, and so far in 2019 they're making the most of them. Once they return from spring break, they'll embark on what they expect to be a successful tour through the 3A Metro League and hopefully the first state playoff appearance for a team sport in Prospect Ridge's young history.