There are two ways to get to Wichita for the Boulder Collegians. In 2014, they took the easier way by catching lightning in a bottle at the Rocky Mountain Baseball League regional tournament.
This summer, Matt Jensen and Taylor Henry will gladly take a repeat trip to the National Baseball Congress World Series without hesitation. But the challenge of winning the RMBL regular season title helped mold the roster and the schedule alike.
The initial step out of the dugout and onto the field is Thursday night.
“We have the opportunity to offer guys a good summer ball experience, and I think we’re seeing that in the type of players we’re getting,” Jensen said recently, ahead of Thursday’s road opener against the Greeley Greenheads. “We’re just getting better and maturing as we go, and we’re realizing how much better we can be on the field each and every year.
“Taylor Henry has taken us to another level as far as collegiate connections … on paper, I think this is the best team we’ve put together so far.”
With a solid roster in their second year, the Collegians were just a few wins away from the RMBL title last season, but pitching fatigue contributed to a rough stretch run heading into the tournament. A few days’ rest was enough to refresh the squad as a whole, and the Collegians rode to a second-place finish at the tournament to Kansas. In a season packed with games sardine-in-a-can tight, they finished 29-19.
Four players return from last year’s team, including ace pitcher Russel Mithlo. Henry, who takes over as head coach after serving as pitching coach last summer, said the Collegians boast a number of capable hurlers surrounding Mithlo that have fresh arms.
“We had our first practice (Tuesday) and I really liked what I saw,” Henry said, adding he was elated to get the chance to head the team on the field as a Boulder native. “This team is going to swing the stick really well, and we have a bunch of pitchers who didn’t throw much for their schools this season. They’re motivated and hungry to really help out this summer.
“We do have rotation guys; the nice part is, we aren’t worried about arm fatigue much at all.”
By design, Jensen and Henry will get a good long look at their pitchers with a heavy load of non-RMBL games early in the season. Thursday’s opener (Nelson Park, 6 p.m.) begins a stretch of just two league games within the first nine contests of the year.
Though the home opener June 1 includes a league doubleheader, the bulk of the league slate will not begin until June 8. A four-game road trip to Albuquerque before that will also be used as a team-building experience for a roster of young men who play in colleges from coast to coast.
“We thought it would be nice to play a lot of non-conference games early so that by the team we start league everybody’s really gotten into it again,” Henry added. “They are going to want to impress each other because they’ve never played with each other, but then once you get into that important part of the schedule, they’ll be relaxed and just play.”
Jensen’s coaching background certainly influences a lot of the decisions the team makes on the diamond, but the general manager in him is constantly running the wheel in his head.
Community outreach continues to be a top priority, as is the need for sponsors to help support a growing program. Ultimately, for Jensen, the Collegians are going to be as recognizable a part of Boulder as the flatirons.
“From a business side, we’re connecting with more non-profits than ever,” Jensen said. “We’re working with programs like the Boulder EXPAND Program, the Youth Services Initiative for the city, North Boulder and South Boulder Little Leagues. We want to do a better job using baseball as an outreach.”
The Collegians will once again be putting on two youth baseball clinics (June 10-12 and July 8-10), and Jensen said he is continually pressing to make the game-day experience exceptional.
Follow Adam on Twitter: twitter.com/AdamDunivan24