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High School | General | 2/28/2019

MVHS rises from the Rockies

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Sam Ireland (Tim Bourke photo)

2019 Perfect Game High School Preview Index

Ron Quintana had no choice but to be resigned to the reality that presented itself right outside the windows at Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo., early this week.

“They said we were going to get 1- to maybe 4-inches of snow and we got something like 8-to-10, and it’s not melting,” Quintana, the ninth-year baseball coach at MVHS told PG over the phone, a hint of winter weariness detectable in his voice. “Our tryouts are scheduled for this week so, yeah, good times.”

On the flipside, another reality Quintana is facing is these are, indeed, good times for his Mountain Vista baseball program. The Golden Eagles captured the first Colorado High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) state championship in the 17-year history of the school in 2018 and with nine key contributors back from that 26-1 outfit, expectations are soaring on Denver’s Front Range.

Once the snow melts away, Mountain Vista will start its season sitting in the No. 34 slot in the Perfect Game High School Preseason National Top 50 Rankings and as the second-highest ranked team in the PGHS Great Plains Region (Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota); Christian Brothers HS in St. Louis, Mo., is ranked No. 20 nationally.

“It’s good to be recognized,” senior two-way standout Sam Ireland told PG this week. “Our senior class is very good; we’re very fortunate. We have a bunch of guys going to pretty good places (for college) and we’re really excited about this season. The national (recognition) helps but it’s all about postseason rankings for us.”

The Golden Eagles fly into 2019 with a roster that features a core group of four seniors that have helped the them to back-to-back final-four finishes at the CHSAA Class 5A (big school) state tournament, culminating with the state championship last season.

Perfect Game ranks all four seniors – corner-infielder/right-hander Sam Ireland, right-hander/first baseman Clayton Burke, catcher Grant Magill and shortstop Drew Stahl – as top-500 national prospects in the 2019 class.

They are also all ranked in the top-19 among their Colorado peers and all four have signed letters with NCAA D-I schools: Ireland (No. 8 Colorado) with Minnesota; Burke (No. 13) with Oregon; Magill (No. 14) with Indiana State and Stahl (No. 19) with Washington State.

Senior infielders John Zakhem (Metro State) and Matt Klein (Northeastern CC) and senior outfielder Elisandro Aragon should also be key contributors, as should junior infielder/right-hander Griffin Shearon (top-500/11 class of 2020) and sophomore right-hander/outfielder Evan Magill (No. 11 Colo. 2021).

“It’s their hard work,” Quintana said when asked about the guys who have college baseball in their futures. “You’re always excited and proud of the boys that, number-one, they’re going to graduate high school. And, two, they’re going to get the chance to play some big-time baseball at a high level.

“It’s going to be fun and it’s always exciting, and I’m proud of all my kids no matter where they go – there’s a place for everybody.”

Quintana told PG it can sometimes be difficult to gauge exactly where a team – a collection of individuals, after all – might be sitting mentally as they prepare for the start of a new season, especially after winning a state championship the previous season.

He’s seen examples throughout his coaching career of teams that are talented, put together a great run similar to the one the Golden Eagles went on last season and finally win their first state championship, only to come out on cruise control the following year. That said, Quintana is more than confident that the guys on this team will not allow that to happen.

“This group is a competitive group,” he said. “They’re not going to go out and go through the motions; they want to win again. We expect to make another little run and there’s a core group here, which is nice. Obviously, we’ll be reloading or rebuilding next year but this core group here, they want to win again.”


… … …

the Golden Eagles went into single-elimination district/regional play and made short work of both Mullen and Legend high schools to advance to the state tournament.

Having earned the No. 1 seed, Mountain Vista was set to open as a big favorite against No. 8 Arapahoe and, with Ireland making the start, promptly ended up on the wrong side of an 8-1 decision and dropped into the losers’ bracket.

“After that game, I was obviously (ticked) off, so I went home and let out some anger,” Ireland told PG. “And then (Quintana) called us and told us to get back to our south Denver facility in 15 minutes; I was clearly upset that I had to be there at that moment.”

Quintana brought the team together and told his players that he’d seen it before where a team loses that first game but pulls itself together and rallies to win the state championship.

The good thing, the coach said, was that they had another game to play the very next day and he knew they weren’t out of contention. If his team played the way it had in its first 21 games – all victories – he was certain it could go on another five-game winning streak.

There’s a scene in the classic Coen brothers movie “The Big Lebowski” when things aren’t going well for the two protagonists, and one turns to the other and says, “Dude. Let’s go bowling.” Quintana was right on cue:

“What do you tell your team, because either way I was proud of them, and we had another day to play,” he said. “I think that once we got past the shock of the loss, we had a little team meeting and then we went bowling just to get away from it.”

It worked: “It was just more of a tension relief kind of thing, whatever it took to get our minds off of baseball for the time being,” Ireland said, “and then we went bowling just to get away from it. … We came back and it was unreal. We pitched and we destroyed baseballs, we did everything we could, we made the plays; it was a great time.”

Putting together winning streaks of 21 and five games sandwiched around a single loss is something that can never be expected or counted upon. Quintana knew coming into the season that his roster, albeit young, was good enough to make a deep run into the playoffs. The program had been knocking on the state championship door for a couple of years, never-mind the six-win season in 2016.

“We don’t set goals, we set standards,” he said. “It was something we never really talked about. We knew we’d win a lot of games, but once we started getting on a roll, we never talked about it. …It was a good group of kids, great talent, and they also wanted to win; they wanted to beat you. When you get that combination, it’s a lot of fun.”

At the conclusion of the 2018 season, USA Today Sports named Ireland the Colorado Player of the Year. The junior hit .400 with 11 home runs and 43 RBI and also went 11-1 with a 2.72 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 72 innings pitched; Quintana was named the Colorado Coach of the Year.

They will both tell you it took a total team effort. Ireland cited his co-ace, the senior right-hander Jack Liffrig – who went 11-0 with a 1.72 ERA and is now at Utah – as the guy who really lifted the balloon; sophomore Ben Cole saw his first varsity action during the state tournament and also provided a lift.

“Last year, that was a wild ride, that was unreal,” Ireland said. “Jack Liffrig, man could he throw the ball; he was unbelievable.”

A lot of the veteran guys on this 2019 roster once played together on the same south Denver youth team so they’ve known each other since they were around 8 years old. Needless to say, perhaps, but they’ve become lifelong friends, or at least it seems that way in the here and now.

“There’s really nothing that we don’t do together,” Ireland said. “If we’re going out, we’re going out together. Everything baseball we’re obviously doing together and we’re just a real solid group and there’s never really anything that breaks us apart.”

He recalled that when this core of today’s seniors came in as freshmen in 2016 the team might have been lacking in certain ways, most noticeably – in his mind, anyway – in senior leadership.

Back then, Ireland thought of this class of 2019 as being pretty good but also acknowledged he and his freshman teammates had a long way to go if they were to achieve what everyone expected of them; the 2016 Golden Eagles  finished 6-13 before rebounding to 18-7 in 2017.

Looking back at that 2016 season, Quintana recalled that a lot of the parents and others from outside of the program were looking at the freshman class and telling him, “This is the team, Coach, this is the group.”

They made their share of freshman mistakes – that’s bound to happen – but they were among the best players in the program even as ninth-graders and they earned their playing time. Quintana and his staff knew immediately what they were getting, and with hard work, and dedication and loyalty to the program, the players have pretty much done what everyone thought they’d do.

“They’re special kind of kids; it’s the old cliché but there’s something special about each one of them,” Quintana said. “They take pride in their craft and they take pride in not only baseball but their grades. We’ve carried a 3.75 (GPA) as a varsity team the last three or four years, so not only are they smart on the field but they’re smart off the field. That says a lot, too, as far as their work ethic and who they are as people.”

… … …

an 11-team league that features notable Front Range and state programs like the ones at Regis Jesuit, Heritage, Legend and Chaparral. The Golden Eagles also have non-league games this spring with Cherry Creek (winners of eight CHSAA state championships), Arapahoe, Smoky Hill and Rocky Mountain, among others.

“I firmly believe it’s the best and most competitive league in the state,” Quintana said of the Continental. “We try to put a non-league schedule together that gets us ready for our league, but I don’t think there’s anything that can. We go into the league and you can’t take a break; there is no break. There’s a lot of talent throughout the league and I think that helps us going into the  playoffs.”

Some of the top prospects in the league this spring include Legend HS seniors Justin Boyd (Oregon State), Hank Bard (Kentucky) and Jake Greiving (Air Force), and Chaparral seniors Bryce Matthews (Arkansas) and Iain Isdale (Northern Colorado).

“Every team in our league has a dude on the mound,” Ireland noted. “There’s always a chance you’re going to see that guy, and no matter what you could lose that game just because they have a horse on the mound. Seeing that all year long is so beneficial for us before the playoffs.”

Quintana also accepted an invitation to play in this year’s Boras Baseball Classic of Arizona, a 16-team tournament featuring top teams from Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah that will be played in mid-March at Phoenix-area high schools; Legend joins Mountain Vista as the only other Colorado entrant.

“I look forward to playing good teams all the time,” Quintana said. “I love challenging my guys and it’s a good tournament to find out where we are this year. … I want to play the best and with this group, so do they. With all this national (recognition) if there’s a team I should take down there this is the team right here.”

It’s all part of building a viable culture inside a program, one that will continue to nurture and promote success as classes of student-athletes come and go. Each new season is always fun, Quintana acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be stressful, as well.

The key is developing a culture that both the kids and the parents buy into, and Quintana believes he benefits from a terrific base both in the baseball program and in the school as a whole. When you have great kids and great parents, and everyone’s reading from the same page, seasons become adventures that are just plain fun.

“I remember the days of winning six games,” he told PG, “and you’ve got to do a lot of soul-searching sometimes to figure out if we’re doing the right thing. But the one thing that I’ve love about doing it is that we’re trying to grow as a coaching staff, as well. Every year we’re trying to grow and get our kids better.”

Entering a season as a first-time defending state champion could put added pressure on the Golden Eagles, but Quintana downplays that. No team works its butt off to win a state championship and earn a level of respect from across the country only to come in the next year and roll over, resting on its laurels.

“As a coach, you coach to get to this point and to have your kids be nationally ranked and be highly recruited,” Quintana said. And Ireland feels like momentum – and maybe even a little bit of karma – is on Mountain Vista’s side.

“It definitely carries over into this season, for the returning guys, anyway,” he said. “We’ll have some new faces up on the team this year because it’s a new team, even some seniors that are going to get their first year on varsity. … We definitely know that we have the talent and we can beat anybody.”

The team has been going through winter workouts and after completing one on a recent Friday everyone sat down and asked each other, “What are our goals?” But remember, this is a program that sets standards, not goals.

“Last year we didn’t know that we didn’t have to win every game,” Ireland said. “This year we’re going into this knowing that we don’t have to win every game. … Just win the (conference), get into the playoffs and maybe even host (the districts).”

Quintana revealed that the team is using as its motto this season the old Chinese phrase “Kaizen” which means simply “continuous improvement.” Obviously, he said with a laugh, the only way this team could improve on last season would be to finish 27-0 instead of 26-1, but that’s extremely difficult; so is winning back-to-back state championships. And right now, as the calendar flips from February into March, it’s a bit of a waiting game for the Mountain Vista Golden Eagles.

“Everybody’s just ready to get outside,” Quintana said. “The thing is, everybody else is indoors because there’s snow everywhere so everybody’s in the same boat, it’s just how do you mentally prepare your kids to get ready. … It’s the mental part trying to prepare the guys and keep them focused on getting their work done indoors even though everybody’s tired of being indoors.”

Yes, everybody’s ready to get outside, but in the meantime everyone’s doing what they can to help out and make the best of an unfortunate situation.

“Yeah, (the snow) came out of nowhere the other night and we ended up with about 8 inches,” Ireland said. “So right now, I’m heading over to the field to help shovel it.” All hands on deck …

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