SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Three years ago, Manitou Springs stood tall as the Class 3A state runner-up. A combination of solid play and veteran experience led the Mustangs to a second-place finish for just the second time in school history.
It has been a steady decline since then. After the 2017 season, coach Cory Archuleta walked away and Brandon DeMatto stepped into the position. His first year at the helm, the Mustangs went 4-15 and didn't seem to attract the athletes they had in recent years.
DeMatto knew he had do something not just to re-energize the energy around the program, but to entice the kids at the school to get involved. By doing that, he's hoping Manitou can once again get back to a highly competitive level. His first step was to give them something to look forward to.
That's why he entered the team into the 2019 Pride Classic in Phoenix. The tournament is held over spring break and several Colorado teams already make their way toward the desert to play. He was anxious for his players to find some tough competition and get the kids out of the daily cycle of school, practice and games.
"It was multifaceted," DeMatto said. "The greatest motivation to come down here was generating excitement to play and to be excited about the sport and the game. More importantly, it was to expose them to a level of baseball that they're unaccustomed to and give them a bigger picture of what's out there."
The Mustangs went 0-4 in play this week, but early in the process DeMatto knew that he was going to do what it takes to make it an annual trip. If the Mustangs were doing this two or three years ago, they'd be settled in and probably on a different competitive level by year three.
"I think we would be a lot more competitive," freshman Raymond McCaskey said. "We would know what to expect and this competitiveness kind of blindsided. If we were regulars down here, we'd know how to act and know how to play against the teams down here.
Manitou is far from the only team feeling the benefits. After the Mustangs wrapped up play at Apollo High School in Glendale on Monday, Littleton took the field for their first game, a game that it ultimately won. Coach Brett Pieratt is a former assistant at Valor Christian. The Eagles typically make their way to the Coach Bob Invitational, which amounts to being the same tournament, just taking place a week earlier.
"One of the things that we've seen is that there are 24 kids in our program this year, but 14 of them are freshmen," Pieratt said. "Kids that are going to Heritage or Arapahoe are now coming to Littleton because we get to do some cool things and they get to play early."
Both Heritage and Littleton were in Phoenix this week as were Pine Creek, Wheat Ridge and Brighton among many others.
Some teams comes down with the intent to win. For teams like Littleton and Manitou, an appearance here can go a long way not just in terms of making the kids better right away but building a program that kids will be excited to join.
"It's huge," DeMatto said. "We have to generate excitement for the game of baseball in our community. It's something we've been missing for the last two years."