“Being a starting pitcher requires a different mentality than being a relief pitcher, but Ivan never gives up. If he makes a mistake, he turns around and makes a play the next time. He puts in the extra time needed to have success.”
— Justin Folley, Moffat County High School varsity baseball coach, on MCHS senior Ivan Nielsen making the move from relief pitcher to starting pitcher this season
Ivan Nielsen likes pressure on his shoulders.
Whether at first base, on the mound or at the plate, Nielsen, a Moffat County High School senior, wants his varsity baseball teammates to rely on him.
And, the reliance has never been more important than this season for Nielsen, as he is one of two seniors for the Bulldogs and made the step up from relief pitcher to starting ace.
“As a pitcher, no matter what, you are involved in every play and you run the pace of the game,” Nielsen said. “Fast or slow, it is your decision. And, your teammates back you and rely on you, so you have to have that can-win attitude.”
Nielsen first stepped onto a baseball diamond as a T-ball player and got his start as a pitcher when he moved up to the traveling team.
From the get-go, Nielsen said he understood the importance of pitching mechanics, and he wanted to make sure he was always ready.
“I fell in love with the game early on and I would sit in front of the television and work on my throwing mechanics until it all came together,” he said. “Your whole body has to be in the right form and you have to be able to build up muscle memory so you can keep the ball in the strike zone.
“Mechanics is probably the biggest part of pitching.”
The Bulldogs lost two starting pitchers from last year’s playoff rotation.
Head coach Justin Folley, who was Nielsen’s assistant coach as a freshman before becoming head coach in his sophomore year, said he told Nielsen early he would become a starting pitcher and never doubted he would succeed.
“Ivan is a kid who takes on a challenge and he worked hard all summer to get ready to step into that starting role,” Folley said. “Being a starting pitcher requires a different mentality than being a relief pitcher, but Ivan never gives up. If he makes a mistake, he turns around and makes a play the next time. He puts in the extra time needed to have success.”
Nielsen’s season started out strong, pitching complete games in an 8-5 victory over Paonia and a 16-3 victory over Battle Mountain.
But, Nielsen had his first dose of reality as a starting pitcher March 31 when he struggled early against Eagle Valley as the Devils scored 13 runs in three innings before he was pulled.
“When pitching, the hardest things to do is continue to get the ball in the strike zone, and I couldn’t do that against Eagle Valley,” he said. “Some days are just off days.
“But, when you mess up, you just have to remember what you do right and not focus on the bad games.”
When Nielsen isn’t on the mound, he plays first base for the Bulldogs.
Folley said when Nielsen came in as a freshman first baseman, he was slow and didn’t have good footwork.
But, like his pitching, Folley said Nielsen put in the work to improve.
“Ivan has always had good hands, so he worked hard to adjust his body and worked on his footwork,” he said. “Last year, there were numerous times he saved us by making a play in the dirt and he became a very good defenseman.”
The consistency Nielsen has shown as a pitcher and first baseman isn’t lost as a hitter.
Nielsen, who has batted from the fifth or sixth position in the past, moved into the fourth spot this season, a position usually reserved for power hitters.
Power, Nielsen said, is not his forte.
“When I’m at the plate, my mindset is to get the ball into play no matter how,” he said. “If you get a hit, you could get it in the gap or your opponent could have an error, but the biggest thing is to get it into play so you have a chance to score runners. I’m always working to get RBIs, and that is more my focus than trying to hit the ball out of the park.”
Over the years, Nielsen said he has come to appreciate baseball more because he earns everything he has, including all his gear.
Since he was 14, Nielsen has worked at McDonald’s in Craig, splitting time between going to school and working part-time.
And, while he said school, work and baseball can wear on him sometimes, it’s all worth it.
“It is nice to be able to buy all my baseball equipment myself,” he said. “I bought my first high school bat, five wood bats this year, all my gloves and my cleats.
“The way I look at it, I work hard at school and my job every day, so coming out to the baseball diamond is something I enjoy, so I want to work twice as hard.”
Nielsen has dreams of continuing to play baseball at the next level, but he’s not sure yet where it will lead him.
But, Folley said if his senior leader keeps up his work ethic, he would only continue to get better.
“Ivan isn’t the guy who is going to get guys pumped up, but he leads by example,” he said. “The way he plays and how he never gives up, the younger guys see that and want to do the same thing.
“The kid knows the game, plain and simple.”
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