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Dynamic dynasties: Holy Family baseball finally breaks through, and in a big way

Tigers won first 3A state title in 2010, proceeded to win two more by 2014

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Eric Nakayama truly has seen it all when it comes to the rise of the Holy Family baseball program.

From playing on a fenceless diamond off-campus in North Denver to seeing the Colorado Rockies pitch in to help establish new grounds in Broomfield when the school relocated, Nakayama was heavily involved in much of its growth as a player and coach.

That’s what made the Tigers’ run between 2009 and 2014 so special for the man most close friends and colleagues call ‘Nak’ (that’s knock). The past had always presented Holy Family baseball with occasional talent, but it was during this specific time that talent and mental acuteness came together, leadership blossomed, and a dynasty was the result.

For Nakayama, it was a time to be thankful for all that had transpired — even accepting being passed up for the head coaching job when it was offered to Marc Cowell back in the early part of the 2000s. Nakayama stayed on as an assistant coach, and when Cowell stepped down after the 2013 season because of full-time job duties, Nakayama was given the keys to the program and guided a group that was supremely confident in the transition.

The Tigers peaked in 2014 with Nakayama guiding HFHS to a 24-1 record and the 3A title, its third in a six-year span. The titles in 2010, 2013 and 2014 were surrounded by runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2011 as well as a semifinals appearance in 2012.

“It was a fun run with Marc,” Nakayama said. “We had a lot of talented teams through the years, but it was when Marc came in that we really came to find what a program needed 10 months out of the year. We had a lot of talent over the years, but it was during those times that the mental side of things finally caught up to the physical side of the game.”

Jeremy Papasso / Daily Camera
Holy Family first-year head coach Eric Nakayama gets a celebratory soaking after the Tigers won their second consecutive 3A state title

Perhaps the biggest impression made by Holy Family during the time was its becoming the first school to put a real dent in the run by the mighty Eaton Reds, the program that is the gold standard in Colorado with 11 baseball titles.

All three titles for the Tigers came head-to-head against Jim Danley’s Eaton teams. Prior to that, no other team had captured more than one title against them, and that old knuckle-curve that had been the staple of Reds pitching had silenced strong lineups for years.

And after 2009’s title-game loss to the Reds, Cowell decided about the only way to beat the knuckle-curve was to implement the pitch into the arsenal of his own players and see what happened. In 2010 at Butch Butler Field in Greeley, Holy Family took it to Eaton, 11-1, in its own backyard.

“In my first five years there, we just flat-out couldn’t beat them … but I learned a lot, watched a lot, and studied what they were doing those first years,” Cowell said. “I absolutely loved getting the opportunity to play against coach Danley and those teams. We smile as a staff when we reminisce, because we beat them in (2010) with the knuckle-curve. Sean Urban, he couldn’t break a plane of glass with his fastball, and he’d be the first to tell you that … but he had the dirtiest knuckle-curve and he helped us beat Eaton in a semifinal. Josh Tinnon had it, and Evan Genders developed it, too. We figured out a strategy against, and we used it ourselves.”

“Getting over the hump with Eaton after getting pounded for years and years was pretty rewarding to say the least,” added four-year letterwinner Rob McCandlish, a catcher who both Cowell and Nakayama said was the smartest baseball player either had ever coached. “I think what came together in 2010 was having a deep pitching staff that was all able to throw multiple pitches. We could throw out Josh Tinnon, and Cody Simmering and Sean Urban, and all these really, really good pitchers and that helped us get through the playoffs, especially.”

Title No. 1 was a big gulp of water from a tall glass on a sizzling late spring afternoon. But that first title also spurred expectations of not wanting to fade off and join the countless other programs who may never have achieved such remarkable heights again.

And, they relied on each other as players just as much as their adult leadership.

“The chemistry that we had was pretty unprecedented, I thought, and it helped us continue to stay true to our goals in the younger years and then finally break through in our junior year and being able to repeat senior year,” said Devlin Granberg, who played from 2011-14 and now is in the Boston Red Sox farm system. “We had great role models my freshman year … they knew what kind of work ethic was needed.”

Added Cowell: “We pushed our players and we held them accountable. It wasn’t just lip service. But as we started to realize that we could do that stuff, it didn’t have to be so much the coaches; they were internally motivated and held each other accountable. That’s something special.”

In 2012, the Tigers ‘dipped’ to a 17-7 mark yet managed to make the semifinals. The roster included nine sophomores, Granberg included. In 2013, that junior class (which had grown to 11 in numbers) took HFHS back to the title game the hard way — the Tigers lost their opening state tournament game to La Junta before fending off elimination in five straight games.

“That was a special run those couple weekends,” Granberg said of the 2013 tournament. “After that first loss, we just kind of had a little team gathering and it was all positives. It was a collective decision not to give up, not to panic, and take things one pitch at a time. A crazy run, but all about the belief that we could do something special.”

Cowell stepped down almost immediately after the 2013 state title game, but Nakayama’s zest for continuing along the same path made it easy for athletic director Ben Peterson to give him the head coach title. With that extraordinary group of seniors, a repeat was nothing short of destiny.

Daily Camera file photo
Holy Family junior third baseman Zach Trombley (4) is congratulated by teammates after blasting his second three-run home run of the afternoon on Saturday at Jackson Field in Greeley in a 19-2 win over Kent Denver.

“It was fun to watch that team win back-to-back titles, but it was really fun to see coach Nak win a title as a head coach,” Cowell said. “He has a lot of rings between football and baseball, but all of them as an assistant coach. I was just so happy to see him get one with the ‘HC’ on it because he definitely deserved to be called a champion as a head coach.”

The Tigers notably moved up to 4A in 2015 and still went 12-7 with a young group. By 2019, they had made it to 4A’s final weekend.

Details of the Dynasty: Holy Family baseball

Coaches: Marc Cowell and Eric Nakayama

Dynasty years: Between 2009 and 2014, Holy Family averaged 21 wins and just 3.8 losses per season, went to the Class 3A state tournament each year and made the championship game five of six seasons. While Eaton dominated the classification for years under Jim Danley, the Tigers wrestled all three of their titles during that span from the grasp of the Reds.

Major players: Austin Brown, Devlin Granberg, Matthew Lopez, Rob McCandlish, Chris McManus, Connor Meining, Will Roth, Ryan Silva, Cody Simmering, Conor Stanley, Josh Tinnon, Zack Trombley, Sean Urban.

Most dominant moment: In 2014, Nakayama took over as head coach as Cowell left the program temporarily to re-energize himself. The team that had taken the 2013 title was mostly intact for 2014, and the chemistry and swagger showed in going 24-1 and outscoring foes 360-81. The state tournament was a grind, but HFHS beat Faith Christian, Lamar and Eaton (twice) to claim back-to-back championships.