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Short of breath? Not Boulder baseball as it finds calm amid new expectations

Mar. 19—In all its chitchat and ribbing, the common language of high school boys is hushed when Boulder baseball coach John Whitehead instructs his players to find a spot on the ground.

After last week's snowstorm, the Panthers' field is still not ready by the start of practice Monday afternoon. They've instead set up inside a small gym in the school they call "The Pit", which has otherwise been abandoned for the day.

For a few minutes, it's quiet enough to hear the buzzing lights overhead. Players go on their backs and are still, told to focus only on breathing and visualization techniques.

"Mental is 90% of the game of baseball and we don't even work it 10% of the time," said Whitehead, who on the advice of renowned Major League Baseball personal trainer Alan Jaeger has his team meditate at the start of each practice. "If we don't work it, it's like anything else — we don't get better at it."

In the silence, the third-year coach tells his players to reflect on the word they each chose uniquely for themselves ahead of the season. Senior ace Doug Holleman's, for instance, is consistency — "Throw a lot more strikes, stay in the zone and command games," he said.

The 41 other guys on roster have a word for themselves as well, though all of them could fit under a couple others. Unity, which sits on the back of their team shirts, and revival, with the Panthers aiming for a postseason berth following just four wins a year ago.

"The first thing for us is our mentality," Whitehead said. "We spent time after last season with every single kid talking about what they want out of this coming year. And they all want to play meaningful games in May. And I respect that."

Playoffs may seem like a lofty goal for a program that hasn't qualified for a postseason regional since before the pandemic, in 2019. But the Panthers like the makeup of a roster that graduated just four players. Notably, they're excited about a freshman class already fixed with big-time playing experience.

Of the freshmen, Whitehead said around 8-11 played on the 2021 North Boulder Little League team, which was one win away from reaching the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Pitcher Sam Skubic and corner infielder Finn Torvik were both 12 years old when they fell just short of the Little League regionals in Waco, Texas. Both are now 14 and on Boulder's opening 2024 varsity roster.

"For me, this is a big step up for sure, but I feel like I've been in the spotlight," Skubic said. "I feel like I can handle bigger situations against better teams and deal with things like that."

Torvik, currently out while nursing an elbow and forearm injury, agreed. Mostly, anyway. Admitting the transition to high school ball is "nerve-wracking playing against guys four years older than us," he said it's been easier than expected thanks to a warm welcome from the upperclassmen.

He echoes teammates and coaches, saying there are "more wins to come" for the program.

The Panthers opened the season with a 16-1 win over Westminster, in a game Holleman threw a no-hitter over four innings before it ended due to the state's mercy rule. It was Boulder's first win by 10 or more runs since 2022.

"We've already seen in one game, this group wants to see each other succeed, see each other grow," Whitehead said. "We talked about the unity piece. They all cheer for each other no matter what is going on."