A group of unexpected guests intently watched the Rocky Mountain High School baseball team’s senior day ceremonies at the end of last season.
The Lobos had just beat Evergreen 4-2, but instead of heading straight for the bus ride home, Evergreen stayed.
Steve Jones didn’t plan it, but the then first-year coach jumped at a teaching moment.
“I wanted our kids to see what is, in my opinion, the gold standard baseball program,” Jones recalled.
So the Evergreen players politely stood at attention, applauding Rocky Mountain’s seniors.
The gesture was a testament to Rocky Mountain’s standing in the Colorado baseball scene.
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Few high school programs in Fort Collins can put together a long run where a state title is a realistic end result every season. Currently, the list includes Fort Collins’ track and cross country programs, Fossil Ridge swimming and Rocky Mountain baseball.
The Lobos have appeared in six of the last nine state title games, winning five. Rocky Mountain has won eight conference titles in the last 12 seasons.
“You know that expectations are really high. That really just sets the bar. It’s a winning culture,” said Cole Anderson, who won a state title at Rocky Mountain as a junior in 2014 and now plays in the Colorado Rockies organization.
“I think it also takes a lot of the pressure off since we have a winning culture. It’s like, ‘Oh hey, we have a chance this year.’”
The culture starts at the top.
Recent baseball coaching history at local 5A schools
Fort Collins: Brad Deal (2002-09), Frank Gonzales (2010-12), Troy Tolar (2013), Marc Wagner (2014-present)
Fossil Ridge: Marco Cuevas (2005-07), Josh Dawes/Mike VanderVelde (2008), Mike Bible (2009, resigned before season), Justin Dillard (2009), Mike Bible (2010), Mark Findley (2011-15), Stephen Holdren (2016)
Poudre: Tony Garcia (2004-06), Phil Coatman (2007-08), Marc Buffington (2009-14), Russell Haigh (2015), Patrick Normandin (2016)
Rocky Mountain: Scott Bullock (2003-present)
Rocky Mountain has been able to ride a wave of consistency. It’s not just in the head coach position with Scott Bullock, who’s in his 14th season It continues with top assistants Glen Schwab and Roy Tripi, who have been there just as long.
“I think all three of us when we took it over knew what we wanted it to look like. We’ve just held strong,” Bullock said. “We’ve got guys in the program, top to bottom, that understand the program.”
Many of the coaches of the Lobos lower-level programs have been around for years. Assistants like Ian Wells and Jake Stewart have returned after playing at Rocky Mountain and the group all consider themselves best friends.
“It’s a team approach,” Tripi said. “Scott’s given us the freedom to lead in the areas we lead in. We’ve all taken ownership in the areas we coach.”
Tripi handles the outfielders. Schwab, who coached at Colorado State University when it had a Division I baseball program, handles the pitching. Stewart helps teach hitting. Everyone works in their comfort zone.
Bullock is just the fourth baseball coach at Rocky Mountain, which opened in 1973.
The other three city Class 5A teams — Fossil Ridge, Fort Collins and Poudre — have all had at least four coaches in the last 10 years.
“If you want to build a successful program, you have to have consistency in the coaching staff,” said Wayne Moddelmog, Rocky Mountain’s athletic director and the baseball coach who preceded Bullock. “Without a doubt, that is very, very evident in our baseball program.”
The lack of continuity in other programs has hurt other city teams’ ability to compete. Dating back through the 2006 season, Rocky Mountain is 28-3 against city opponents.
Frank Gonzales is the father of St. Louis Cardinals prospect Marco Gonzales, who pitched in and won all four of Rocky Mountain’s title games from 2007-10, and Alex Gonzales, who is a senior and won a title in 2014.
Frank is now the coach of the Colorado Rockies rookie league affiliate in Grand Junction, but he led Fort Collins from 2010-12. He knows the Rocky Mountain program as a parent and opposing coach and felt like Fort Collins was closing the gap during his third year. He said if he hadn’t left for the pros, the Lambkins could have competed with the Lobos. Consistency, he said, is key if other programs want to rise up.
“It was definitely a challenge because they had such a tradition and winning percentage there and the success they had,” Gonzales said. “I think it takes a lot of dedication from the staff. Having that continuity and making sure you keep familiar faces in your coaches. … If people buy in to your teaching, coaching and mentoring you should be able to be successful.”
Of course, the best coaches in the world rely on having some talent to win titles, and Rocky Mountain has had plenty.
There was the 2007-10 era when the Lobos won four-straight titles, filled with Division I talent and future pros like Marco Gonzales, Andy Burns, Jess Amedee and Stewart.
Notable Rocky Mountain alumni
Marco Gonzales: Winning pitcher for four-straight state titles from 2007-10. St. Louis Cardinals first-round pick in 2013, on of top prospects in the orginization.
Andy Burns: Won two state titles. One of top prospects in Toronto Blue Jays organization, playing in Triple-A.
Cole Anderson: Won one state title. Picked in 10th round of 2015 draft by Colorado Rockies. Playing for Rockies rookie league team.
Jess Amedee: Won three state titles. Picked in 27th round of 2014 draft, now playing in Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
Jake Stewart: Won three state titles, played in college at Stanford and was picked in ninth round of 2012 draft. Played two seasons of pro ball.
Bryan Peters: Won three state titles, played in college at Nebraska.
Carl Stajduhar: Won one state title, was a freshman All-American in 2015 at New Mexico. Was taken in 27th round of 2014 draft out of high school.
The 2014 title team had Anderson, a 10th round pick of the Rockies in 2015, and several more stars like Carl Stajduhar and Tyler Stevens (both freshman All-Americans last year at New Mexico).
The 2016 team is 3-3, with the losses coming in a prestigious out-of-state tournament. The Lobos are ranked No. 5 in 5A and again expect to contend for a title.
Fort Collins being a school of choice city, baseball talent often finds its way to Rocky Mountain. It’s a source of frustration for many outside the program when players choose into Rocky Mountain or even transfer while in high school, but Bullock says he doesn’t worry about what others say.
“We’re not the only school or only program in town that gets school-of-choice kids,” Bullock said. “If a kid wants to come to Rocky Mountain High School and play baseball and he’s accepted at Rocky Mountain and he does all the things we ask him to do on the field and off the field, then we’re going to love him like everyone else.”
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Anderson, for example, grew up in Wellington, which feeds into Poudre High School.
Once kids get into the program, teaching the “Lobo Way” begins. The board down the third base line listing state and conference title seasons serves as its own motivation.
“We created that culture, then it builds on itself,” Schwab said. “The kids that come after these guys that won state championships, they see how it’s done, they strive to be that.”
Follow sports reporter Kevin Lytle at twitter.com/Kevin_Lytle and at facebook.com/KevinSLytle.