With all the rain, up until now, prep baseball season in the North Fork Valley has been all wiffle balls and indoor practices. But when Paonia opens the season against 3A Gunnison on March 23, it'll be ready, said Eagles head coach Ricky Sparks.
Sparks was recently named to replace Nate Miller, a Paonia graduate and all-state baseball player who coached the Eagles to two state 2A titles and was twice named 2A coach of the year during his four-year tenure at Paonia. When Miller announced last fall that he was leaving, he told the DCI he hoped that "someone within the organization will step up and take over."
Sparks stepped up. Since joining the program in 2012, Sparks has been assistant varsity and head junior varsity coach. The decision was more like drawing straws than having someone make the decision, said Sparks. Coaches, players and school administration all had a say. "We knew we wanted to keep it in-house," said Sparks.
Miller "wishes us his best and he wishes he could be out here," he added.
A 2003 Hotchkiss High School graduate, Sparks attended Dallas Baptist University on a baseball scholarships.
In 2006 Sparks was drafted by the New York Mets and pitched relief for three seasons. "This is my 30th year of baseball if you count T-ball," said Sparks.
All but one assistant coach, Steve Swartzendruber, returns this season. "Schwartz" retired last year after more than three decades of coaching sports at Paonia. Only one returning coach, assistant coach Nate Wiggins, is a Paonia High School graduate. The other coaches all graduated from Hotchkiss. Collectively, they hold seven school baseball records.
Since 2003 Sparks has held the Hotchkiss school record for ERAs, and is tied for most at-bats in a single season.
A 2004 HHS grad who also has coached at Paonia since 2012, Curt Morgan holds school records for the most strikeouts by a pitcher in a single season, RBIs, slugging percentage, and home runs. He played two seasons at Lamar Junior College.
Eric Neal is also a 1992 graduate and state champion wrestler from Hotchkiss.
Two new coaches, Brandon Bell and Michael Sparks, will help out with the team when time allows.
Sparks is the younger brother of Ricky Sparks, and Bell is a 2004 Hotchkiss graduate who holds the school record for most base on balls (walks) by a batter in a season.
Sparks said Miller leaves him with a strong program and a good team. "I don't think it's very often that you change head coaches after two state championships," he said.
Returning players -- seniors Soul Connolly and David Lozano; juniors Jai Petmezas, Shane Odom, Austyn Norris, Carlos Lozano and Grey Neal; and sophomore Gunner Putman are there because they want to be, he said. "They're working harder right now than I've ever seen them work."
While returning players bring state championship experience to the program, the Eagles lost eight talented seniors, most of them all-state players. "We're going to play a little bit different baseball this year," said Sparks. "We're not going to hit 25 home runs. We're going to have to show a little more grit and scrap and show a little bit more of a team effort from top to bottom."