Early-season look at San Juan Baseball

by Rhett Sifford
Sports Editor
It’s been a very busy first couple weeks for the San Juan High School baseball team, with a flurry of games that included two tournaments in just a few days.
After beginning the season 2-3 the Broncos have put together a nice six-game winning streak. They are 8-3 overall and 3-0 atop the 2A East Region standings.
They dominated their opponents this past week and their opening three games of region play, beating North Summit in a doubleheader 26-1 and 10-0 and topping Monticello 22-0.
San Juan is beginning to heat up as they – believe it or not – approach the midpoint of the regular season. They have outscored their opponents 111 to 45 so far.
I recently engaged in a Q&A with third-year head coach Jens Nielson about his outlook for the season and his team. It’s presented here almost in its entirety thanks to the transcription effort of David Boyle.
Sifford: How’s the season gone so far for you guys?
Nielson: Really good actually; there’ve been a lot of good things. The group that we have – not to knock the group from last year – but these guys have leadership. They want to win. Our motto this year is “One More.”
When that was presented to the boys they immediately went to, “Well we want one more championship,” but that’s not what the meaning is. It’s more “one more rep, one more effort, one more ball, one more whatever it is.” But the mentality of these boys is, “We want one more championship.”
Sifford: You have some guys on your team who have proven they can do it.
Nielson: Yeah, I think the experience from the other sports has played a role in that mentality. There’s lots of fight. These guys don’t give up. It’s the thing as a coach; we talk about it with our other coaches: Even though we’re down five or six runs we don’t feel like we’re out of a ball game. We feel like we can hit our way back into it.
Sifford: What's your approach this year to coaching these boys?
Nielson: The approach is buy-in. We’ve gotten together as coaches and talked about the things we need to change as coaches and that’s to build a relationship with the boys. It is about baseball, it’s about winning, it’s about competing, but it’s also about getting to know the boys, getting that buy-in from them so they trust you as a coach and then they’ll want to compete for more.
Sifford: In years past, baseball and softball, San Juan has been really good and then there’s been maybe some down years. I know Mike [Bowers] on the softball side has been talking about getting San Juan back to that level. Do you have that same mentality on the baseball side?
Nielson: One hundred percent. That’s our goal as a coaching staff. I think the boys want it. When Mike came in, it took him a few years to get things developing. My senior year was when Mike first started coaching baseball.
Immediately we saw the difference of what he was teaching and how it affected us and so we were learning but it took a few years to kind of build. He got it to that point and then there was a fall-off. It comes down to parents.
These boys need more in their youth leagues. They need more experience. Most of these kids coming into high school, they have seven games per season under their belt. That’s all they’re getting. So the actual fundamentals have gone down.
Right now it’s starting to build back up because we’re starting to see the kids where the parents are involved and they’re taking them to tournaments and things like that.
This year is probably the first year that I didn’t have to go back to the basics of teaching how to catch a ball, how to throw a ball. I was able to jump right in and say, “Alright we can get started because everybody knows how to do these things already.”
Sifford: Can you talk to me about some of the players you’re expecting to step up this year?
Nielson: Garret Young is on fire. Playing really good defense, hitting the crap out of the ball. He went from last year hitting these okay hit singles that are just, nothing terribly hard hit but he’s just crushing the ball this year. He’s middle infield. He’ll pitch a little bit but he’s mostly middle infield, short, second.
Ian Johnson has done really well with us for our hitting. He’s done really well with pitching. He’s one who’s stepped up his mentality as well. He’s put a lot of effort and time into getting better and it’s showing. He’s excelling and he’s been hitting pretty well for us.
Jerzy Nieves anchors our pitching staff. He’s a pretty good pitcher, has some good off-speed stuff that keeps kids off balance. Good hitter; he’s a tough out.
Jace Palmer is solid defensively. He’s struggling early on with pitching and hitting but we’re not worried about that; that’ll come. Everybody knows as soon as the ball’s hit in the outfield to center field they can just turn around and say Jace has it. They’re not worried about it because he’ll catch it. 
Collin Baker is raw but he’s got a lot of potential and I think as the season goes along you’re going to start seeing him just crush the ball. He plays pretty good defense; he’s in the outfield.
Maddax Lee. Senior, playing first base for us this year. He struggled last year. We issued a challenge for him to step it up and take on a different approach. He’s not on fire yet, but he’s starting to hit the ball a little bit. The main thing about him is he’s showing leadership. He’s positive, he works hard, he shows up to everything. He’s just being a good leader. It's rubbing off on everybody else that he's stepping up to do that.
Parker Snyder, our sophomore catcher, he is a good ballplayer. He’s hitting really well, he has a good mind behind him, he’s mature, he’s controlled, he understands the game, he leads without saying much, and he’s a critical part to our team here.
Sifford: What’s your pitching rotation look like?
Nielson: That’s where we need work. We’ve got the pitchers to do it, the depth, but just struggling throwing strikes. Our main pitchers are Jerzy, Ian, Parker, Jake Ivins a freshman, Talon [Mendoza] is a freshman. We’ve thrown Brody [Bilbao] and Collin Baker in a little bit.
Again as the season goes along our primary focus is, we don’t have anybody who’s going to blow it by anybody. We don’t have any real hard throwers.
But if we can get to the point where our guys can just throw strikes and have the understanding that we don’t need to strike everybody out, we’ve got a defense behind us that’ll make plays, we’re going to win ball games.
That’s critical for playoff time because when it comes to playoff time we’ve got a lot of guys we’ll be able to utilize.
Sifford: What’s the feeling you get from your players as far as their attitude towards the season?
Nielson: It’s been great. They’re ready to work. At practices and workouts, there’s really no complaints. They come in, they go to work, and again it shows on the playing field. As a coach, you know your confidence level.
Last year – and there are things as a coach I need to work on – but last year I didn’t have confidence. If we were down a few runs I was like, “Alright the game’s over.” But with this group, it’s like, no the game’s not over. My feeling and their feeling is we’re going to surprise people. Or as one of my coaches put it to the players, “We’re going to punch people in the face.”

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