LAKEWOOD — For the nine seniors on the Niwot baseball team, graduation was an informal affair on Saturday.
They stood in the rightfield grass at All-Star Park, sweaty and dirty. Many of them had tears in their eyes and anger on their faces as, just moments after a 10-2 loss to Green Mountain in the Class 4A state title game, they received a hug from a principal Dennis Daly and their diplomas from coach Craig McBride.
No, it wasn’t a perfect ceremony for the Cougars, who missed out on the formal event earlier in the day, but it was fitting.
After several years of struggles, the Niwot baseball team returned to form this season. The Cougars didn’t win the state championship, but they did what so many Cougars have done before them by skipping graduation in order to play for one.
“Our whole main goal was to turn the program, get it back on the upswing, get it back on top,” first baseman Alex Kinnison said. “I believe we did that.”
Followers of prep baseball grew accustomed to seeing Niwot on the final weekend of the season during the 28-year coaching tenure of Bob Bote. From 1979-2006, Bote’s Cougars went 459-123 and won five state championships, including three in a row from 1998-2000. They also won back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005.
After Bote resigned, assistant coach Jason Lathrop took over and the success continued. The Cougars went 49-22 in Lathrop’s three seasons, with two appearances in the state tournament. They came within one win of the state championship game in 2007.
As most high school sports programs tend to do, however, Niwot went through a down cycle.
During the five-year period of 2009-2013, the Cougars won just one postseason game. In 2011 — McBride’s second season as head coach — Niwot won just seven games and missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1970s. In 2012, the Cougars won just five games and missed the postseason again.
“It was really tough,” said McBride, who was an assistant at Niwot from 2000-09 before taking the head coaching position. “You just had to keep the ultimate goal in mind and not panic.”
In 2011, McBride tried what he calls an “experiment.” He had a freshman class that year that he knew was talented, so he threw them into the fire. Five of them were regular starters that year. The next year, seven sophomores filled the starting lineup. No wonder they went 12-25 in those two seasons.
“We knew they were going to take some lumps, but we had some really good outings — even in those years we had some good outings,” he said. “They have to play the game, so you just try to encourage them and try to help them do the best that they can.”
As juniors, they won their last four games of the regular season to qualify for districts and finished 10-10, setting the stage for this season.
“It took just trusting everybody,” catcher Tanner Kirkpatrick said of the group’s three years of struggles. “We did so many team builders. Everything we did in coach McBride’s basement or Wednesdays with coach (Adam) Strah just brought us together. We took it on the field and it made us want to work that much harder.”
It didn’t hurt that every day they came to practice, whether at the baseball field or in the practice warehouse they use, they saw banners celebrating the success of the past.
“You see it, you hear it and it just makes you dream for it,” Kirkpatrick said.
This spring, they lived it. They went 21-3 before dropping both games this weekend, against Longmont and Green Mountain. At 21-5, they posted the program’s best record since the 2005 title team went 25-1.
“It’s been a long time coming,” McBride said. “We’ve always known that the talent was there with this group and it just took a little bit for them to come together, but they had a phenomenal season.”
All nine seniors were in the starting lineup Saturday, which leads to the question: Will Niwot fall on hard times next year with this group gone? The Cougars don’t think so. They’ve got talent waiting in the wings, they believe, led by talented pitchers Nick Elrod and Ford Ladd.
The returning players also got an opportunity to taste success.
“We got to put up new banners in our warehouse, put up new banners around the school, hang a trophy,” Kinnison said. “We did it and it’s a great feeling.
“We set the standard and I’m confident that the guys below us are going to keep carrying it.”
Saturday may not have been perfect, but history suggests that Niwot can look forward to more informal graduation ceremonies on the outfield grass in years to come.
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