It’s a special spring over at the Eagle Valley High School track oval and baseball diamond.
Heading into the final month of play, the Devils are poised to send a large contingent to the Colorado 4A State Track Meet in Denver May 15-17. The EVHS baseball team can make its first trip in several years to the 4A playoffs if they win out their final four games.
That’s why a number of Devils’ athletes have an extra spring in their steps this week as the tracksters and the baseball squad knuckle down for their make-it or break-it final week of competition.
How’s this for a statistic — with its 151 participants, the EVHS track program has 20 percent of the school’s population participating.
“We are so deep in so many events,” noted coach Jeff Shroll. “We can score points in just about every event in every meet.”
Shroll is marking his 17th year as the Devils head track coach. From his viewpoint covering nearly two-decades of experience, the last couple of years have marked a high point for the program. Because of the nature of state meet qualification — the top 18 competitors in each of the 19 track and field events qualify — Shroll doesn’t yet know exactly who will be making that journey to Denver. But he feels confident that the Devils will be well-represented.
“When you do get kids to qualify for state it’s a pretty great thing,” he said. “The state meeting is an unbelievable experience. You get a chance to see the best of the best.”
Because 50 percent of Colorado’s high schools fall into the 4A classification, the state meet is a huge affair.
“Its a great opportunity for our kids to go over to Denver and we always want to see Western Colorado do well,” said Shroll.
Once a Devil, always a Devil
While Shroll and co-head coach Melinda Brandt oversee the track program, they get a lot of help from former Devils.
Five former EVHS competitors — Jacob Rivera, Katie Rivera, Sean Mathison, Jamie Bair and Ethan Smith — returned to help coach this year’s track team.
“It great to have the kids who came through the program come back and give back to the school,” said Shroll. “EVHS track is a family.”
Current competitor Carly Volkmer, who competes in the open 400m dash, sprint medley relay, 4x200 and the 4x400, echoed that statement.
“What I enjoy most about track is that we are one big family. Both the girls and the boys are extremely close and treat one another as brothers and sisters,” she said.
“I believe that EVHS is having a successful season because we strive for excellence not only in track, but in our character,” Volkmer continued. “It is important for each and every member of our team to be kind, supportive, hardworking and confident in who they are.”
Senior Luis Chavez needed the support of his track family this year when a knee injury threatened to kill his season.
“Having surgery made track very difficult. It was hard to finish workouts since my knee would hurt after running for long periods of time. I did not believe I was going be able to run after I got surgery,” he said. “But once the doctor cleared me to run I slowly started to practice again. I was very determined to come back and earn my spot back on varsity. I trained as much as I could, depending on how much my knee would hurt. I was very excited to get back to my races and to qualify for state.
“What I enjoy the most about track is my teammates,” said Chavez. “We’ve built a track family at EVHS. We keep each other focused and we push each other to work hard and get better. That’s what I think has helped EVHS have a successful season and a successful program.”
“What I enjoy most about track is how much fun we have off the track together and how our team is like a family,” said senior Riley Rowles, a state qualifier in the 110m hurdles and the long jump.
“I think we are so successful this year because of how the team has bonded,” Rowles said. “We have some really good, special athletes who want to compete and train hard to achieve their goals.”
While he is thrilled with the upperclassmen leading the team this spring, Shroll sees continued success in the future. “We have just a ton of new talent coming up,” he said. That’s another EVHS track tradition — excellence combined with hard work.
“Everything and everyone starts at the bottom and eventually works the way up to the top,” said Volkmer. “This year we have done just that. Our success started at our practices when we would push one another during our 400 repeats and all of the pain that came with them, or by lifting harder and heavier to throw greater distances. Our team is successful this year because we have learned that we can’t accomplish what we want alone, but we can accomplish everything as a team.”
The EVHS baseball program has been on the cusp of post-season success for several years now. Spring 2014 may well be the season the Devils break through.
The team is in the hunt for a Western Slope 4A League playoff berth with a 6-4 record heading into the final four games of the season. If they win out, a berth is in the offing . Making to the post season has been the team since Day 1 of practice.
“We have really come together as a team this year,” said head coach Jesse Meryhew. “We have a great group of guys who compete for each other and do what is best for the team.”
That ethic was on display last fall on a very personal level when Meryhew faced a health scare. He was diagnosed with cancer, and after a treatment regime, Meryhew has bounced back to lead the team. But back in November when his chemotherapy treatment caused him to lose his hair, team members organized a head-shaving event in solidarity with their coach. Then the newly bald 35 players showed up to surprise Meryhew at his home.
Beyond their commitment to their coach and their team, players agree that one of the key factors in their success this season is all of their off-season work. They have played a lot of baseball together last two and a half years, which is when Meryhew took over at the helm.
“Last year, we started in February and ended in July,” said Meryhew. “With the high school and summer seasons, we played over 50 games.”
Another key factor is buy in. Players hang on every word that comes out of Meryhew’s mouth.
“The team has a belief in Coach Meryhew’s philosophy, which is team first and put the pressure on,” said assistant coach Mike Greear. Along with actually playing, players have also worked on their mental skills and have a better understanding of how to implement that philosophy.
“Our mental approach and our focus that we bring to each game has really made the difference,” said senior co-captain Cody Byrnes. Players are focusing on their individual efforts by perfecting their personal skills.
“Everyone knows their roles and are working hard every day to be the best player they can be, and it is leading to solid baseball and wins,” said junior outfielder Harrison Stevens.
The focus on the details has made a huge difference for the Devils. “Working hard and doing the small things right have made us more successful,” said senior co-captain Travis Edgar. “I’m very excited to see how we finish off the season.”
As well he should be. Edgar is the team’s ace on the mound. He is leading the league with strikeouts at 55 with an earned run average of 1.79.
The Devils strongest stand to date this season came during a three game stretch that began with the second game of a Rifle double-header and continued through the sweep of Steamboat before spring break. The boys came back against Rifle after a tough 0-2 loss in game one to win game two 11-8. They beat Steamboat by 11-1 in the first game of a home doubleheader and then gutted out a win in extra innings for game two. The Devils had to come back from five runs down in the 5th inning to tie the game in the bottom of the 7th only to be back down by two in the top of the 9th. The guys scored three runs with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning for a thrilling win 11-10. According to coaches, that’s a sign of maturity and confidence.
After spring break brought a 15-day lull between games, the Devils returned to split a doubleheader with Glenwood Springs. Monday’s loss to Delta, the Western Slope League leading team that is also the No. 2 ranked 4A team in Colorado, put the Devils on notice that their post season destiny is in their own hands. But while the team is plainly and vocally aiming for a post season berth, they are also embracing their season long journey. For the team’s nine seniors, this spring marks their final opportunity to take the field with teammates they have played with for years.
The team chemistry is undeniable. As pitchers rotate and substitutions head out to the field, the level of play doesn’t change.
Having different pitchers on the mound doesn’t faze junior catcher Eric Boyd. “As long as it hits my glove, I’m a happy guy,” said Boyd. From his viewpoint, he’s noticed more mental focus and energy flowing from his teammates.
A lot of boys came out to play for the Devils this year – enough for varsity, junior varsity and freshmen teams. Meryhew likes to see that, and not just in baseball.
“As a coach, you always like to see good numbers in all of the EVHS sports.”
High participation numbers also say a lot about who’s in charge.
“Playing for coach Meryhew is really an honor,” said junior first baseman/pitcher Wade Ticer. “He is a great coach and person.”
Meryhew sees his boys as having tremendous respect for their families, school and community, and he believes those character traits are showing up on the field.
“I’m extremely proud of this group of men,” said Meryhew. “It is an honor to be their coach.”