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Bulldog baseball ready to make up for lost season with big comeback

Andy Bockelman
For Craig Press

No sooner had they gotten into a good rhythm with practices for the 2020 season did the Moffat County High School baseball program learn they wouldn’t be getting onto the diamond very soon as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated last March.

And, though their hopes of possibly picking up where they left off a month later didn’t happen, the return of spring sports is finally here.

Bulldog baseball players have been hard at work this week fielding grounders, perfecting their swing, working out the kinks on the pitcher’s mound, and preparing for every element of the game.



The sight of athletes back in the mix was a welcome one for MCHS head coach Brian Jennings.

Moffat County High School’s Hunter Smilanich waves in Ryan Peck to cross home plate for a run against Coal Ridge. (Andy Bockelman / Craig Press File)

“That last year really made you miss the game, sitting in your house when it’s 70 degrees out. Last spring, I drove by this field every day, and it was a beautiful spring. Couldn’t do anything about it,” he said.



Jennings began with the Bulldogs in 2018, and though this is fourth year with the program, it will only be his third season after last year’s schedule being completely eliminated.

The team had few members of the Class of 2020 on their roster, and most of the younger players who proved their talent from 2019 will be back at it, including five seniors.

“We’re lucky that all our core group now were juniors and sophomores last year, so we got to keep them,” Jennings said.

Seniors: Tanner Etzler, Krece Papierski, Fisher Preston, Hunter Smilanich, Greg Spears

After making a statement as varsity players as early as their freshman year, Krece Papierski, Hunter Smilanich, and Greg Spears are back for their final season.

The trio led the team in 2019 in total hits, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, according to statistics on MaxPreps.

Smilanich had the team’s best batting average (.492), on-base percentage (.575) and batted in the most runs with 21, while Papierski crossed the plate more than anyone for Bulldogs with 24 runs, plus he was most successful in terms of stolen bases with 10.

Spears was close behind in batting average (.423) and in stolen bases at 7.

Papierski, Spears and Smilanich all took All-Conference honors during the 2019 year.

Papierski almost exclusively played catcher for the Dogs, while Smilanich served as both a pitcher and fielder. The two both signed their letters of intent for college ball in February, with Papierski headed for North Dakota’s University of Mary and Smilanich ready to play at Hastings College in Nebraska.

As a sophomore, Tanner Etzler served both in the outfield and on the mound and will be back again to serve where needed.

Hayden senior Fisher Preston was originally prepared to take the field as a junior in 2020, though he’ll be back ready to support the Bulldog infield.

“He’s gonna be at first base a lot for us, and we might work him in as a pitcher,” Jennings said. “The guys are ready to play, ready to go. It’s been a long, long time waiting to play ball. You can tell they’re focused and motivated.”

Returning talent: Carson Miller, Ryan Peck, Daniel Running

Among the athletes who made their mark as Bulldog freshmen in 2019 were Carson Miller, Ryan Peck and Daniel Running.

All three earned considerable batting statistics: Miller with 17 hits and 8 RBIs, Peck 19 hits and 17 RBIs, and Running 15 hits and 6 RBIs.

Each of them was also comfortable on the mound, with Peck taking 11 strikeouts, Miller 6 and Running 4.

Besides players he’s seen in the past, Jennings also has the biggest roster this year he ever has with 30 total players, allowing him to field a sizable junior varsity lineup.

“I think it’s the biggest bunch since I’ve been here. My second year we only had about 17. Lotta freshmen, a lotta fun. A lot more work for the coaches, but a lotta fun,” he said.

The look of the league

In 2019, MoCo baseball placed fourth in the 3A Western Slope League with an overall record of 11-10 and 5-5 in conference play behind Cedaredge and Roaring Fork, with Delta taking the league title and going deep into the playoffs.

However, this season may be harder than any other to speculate how other teams will perform, given how COVID canceled last spring for everyone to create a gap that affected teams across the state and nation.

All Jennings is concerned with at this point is preparing his athletes as best they can.

“We’ve gotta make up for lost time, not a lotta time to do it,” he said. “It’s good to see everything getting back to regular.”

The Bulldogs have already experienced some game-time scenarios with recent scrimmages against Meeker giving them an idea of what they can do.

The MCHS schedule will commence with a home doubleheader at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. May 8 at the Craig Middle School field against Coal Ridge, jumping right in for WSL play.

The schedule for Colorado High School Activities Association’s Season D will stretch past the end of the MCHS school year, though Jennings doesn’t expect the early summer will be inhibitive.

“It’s a lot of baseball in a short amount of time. There’s a big stretch in the middle where we’ll be road warriors, but we’ve always been reliable on the road,” he said. “A lot of it is the guys like to hang out with their friends for two hours on the bus, get themselves focused, whatever they need, and get out there.”

Moffat County High School 2021 varsity baseball schedule

All games subject to change

Date, Time — Opponent; Home/Away

11 a.m., 1 p.m. May 8 — Coal Ridge; Home

4, 6:30 p.m., May 11 — Rifle; Away

6 p.m., May 13 — Meeker; Away

11 a.m., 1 p.m., May 15 — Aspen; Away

TBD, May 18 — Middle Park; Away

TBD, May 21 — Gunnison; Away

3, 5 p.m., May 25 — Steamboat Springs; Home

TBD, May 28 — Gunnison; Away

11 a.m., 1 p.m., May 29 — Delta; Home

11 a.m., 1 p.m., June 5 — Roaring Fork; Away

6 p.m., June 8 — Meeker; Home

3, 5 p.m., June 10 — Basalt; Home

JV schedule

4 p.m., May 11 — Rifle; Away

6 p.m., May 13 — Meeker; Away

TBD, May 18 — Middle Park; Away

4 p.m., June 8 — Meeker; Away

More JV games to be determined


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