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Living in Colorado means you’re pretty blessed when it comes to professional sports. Denver has one of each of the top four American sports with the Nuggets in basketball, the Avalanche in hockey, the Broncos in football, and the Rockies for baseball. However, when it comes to Division I college sports, things are a little bleaker. This is especially true when it comes to baseball.
The only two Division I teams in Colorado are the United States Air Force Academy Falcons, and The University of Northern Colorado Bears. Interestingly enough, the two aren’t even in the same conference with the Falcons belonging to the Mountain West Conference (MWC) and the Grizzlies belonging to the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Despite this, the two teams play several out-of-league matches per year. In the 2018 season, they will play three stand-alone games against each other on March 20th, April 17th, and May 15th.
Coached by Carl Iwasaki, the Bears are looking forward to a competitive season with the goal of winning the WAC Tournament so they can advance to the NCAA tournament. They are returning many players, and have 15 seniors on their roster. Players to look out for include the following: Troy Watson, Aaron Hamilton, Anthony Brady, Jack Pauley, Austin Miller, shortstop Tyler Yamaguchi, second baseman Cole Maltese, and All-Conference catcher Alex Kiel.
The Falcons are in a similar position, hoping to have a better season than last, especially on the pitching front. The Falcons return Tyler Mortenson, Matt Hargreaves, Joe Kincart, and Ryan Holloway, who, according to Coach Michael Kazlausky, have developed significantly in the offseason. They also bring in freshman John Byrnes and expect him to play a key role on the pitching staff. Offensively, Air Force was explosive last season but lost some major contributors in the offseason including All-American nominated players Adam Groesbeck, Bradley Haslam, and Tyler Jones. Luckily, the Falcons return offensive captain Tyler Zabojnik, and MWC All-Conference player Nick Ready.
“Those are our two big guys we’ll be counting on quite a bit,” said Coach Kazlausky, who prefers to go by Coach Kaz.
The teams got a taste of what it will be like to play each other when they took the field for two exhibition games on Saturday, October 21st. Perhaps foreshadowing competition ahead, the teams split, each coming away with a win. Both are obviously looking forward to playing more than just each other, especially for Air Force, who will get the chance to take on the Naval Academy at a Single-A stadium in Houston.
“That’s the greatest weekend of college baseball because you have two teams that are truly dedicated to the service of our country,” said Coach Kaz. “It’s not about being a professional baseball player it’s about serving the country.” Coach Kazlausky remarked that one of the reasons he and his team enjoy competing with the Bears and respect them as competitors is that they have an understanding of this concept.
“We have a lot of respect for each other,” said Coach Iwasaki. “These guys are not gonna play professional ball; they’re gonna serve our country so we’re gonna respect them.” Because the two teams have an understanding of each other’s mentality they are able to enter the field and get to know each other as the seasons go by.
The teams look forward to playing each other for more than just mentality, but also because of the higher level of play that tends to occur when they match up.
“We have great games,” said Coach Iwasaki. “They’re not one run games. They’re 10-run games and we win by one or they win by one.” Having a highly competitive team close by is something neither coach takes for granted.
Both coaches expressed that they feel the strain of having to travel farther to play for DI opponents, especially on the financial and logistical side of the sport. Taking extra travel days for midweek games, and having long bus rides even for weekend series mean both teams have to strategize to ensure the health of player’s minds and grades with Air Force bringing a tutor on every trip, and Northern Colorado hiring a mental skills consultant.
Although, Coach Kazlausky expressed that Colorado has a lot of highly competitive Division II teams that allow for competitive play close to home. Specifically, Coach Kazlausky mentions that the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference has numerous teams that he sees as having high potential to move up to DI as time goes on. Coach Iwasaki agrees that having more DI competition at home would be nice, citing schools like Colorado State University and The University of Colorado Boulder – both DI schools in the area without NCAA baseball teams.
A culture of mutual respect between coaches, players, and programs as a whole has fostered over the years with neither coach having anything negative to say about the other. Coach Kazlausky and Coach Iwasaki are looking forward to the season ahead, and the three games they will play against each other.
As for how they think those games will play out, “The prediction and the reality is we’re gonna play 100 percent, hard baseball, that’s our culture,” said Coach Iwasaki. “That’s their culture there too.”