Colorado is unique among western states when it comes to baseball.
Despite a population of nearly 5.3 million people, it is the only sizable state without a major Division I college baseball program.
Air Force has a team, though the Falcons hardly qualify as a traditional university. Northern Colorado has recently moved up to Division I and also boasts a team, though there is little tradition there.
All of this has combined to make life tough on Colorado players as they seek to make the transition to college ball.
Luckily for some of those players, New Mexico has emerged as a standout baseball school, giving them another option to continue their careers.
“It’s actually really hard because, first of all, there’s like hardly any exposure in Colorado to begin with,” said UNM senior outfielder John Pustay. “The lack of Division I baseball schools there, it just makes it really tough to even think about wanting to stay home and trying go to a school there. When you start thinking about college you’re automatically thinking of going away.
“I would have loved to go to a school back home. I’m from Colorado Springs, where Air Force has a program, but that’s a whole different situation. So we don’t really have that hometown feel. It kind of sucks, really, to be honest. Everybody wants to be that hometown kid that stays in state and is able to perform at the school back home.”
Pustay is one of four current Lobos from Colorado, along with sophomore right-hander Drew Bridges, sophomore second baseman Sam Haggerty and freshman catcher Lane Milligan.
“There’s a lot of kids that actually want to play D-I baseball but there’s nothing there,” said Bridges, who hails from Fruita, a small town near Grand Junction. “Northern Colorado, it’s getting there, but at the same time it would be nice to have a (Colorado State), which is a big D-I school in other (sports), but it doesn’t have a baseball program.”
The winter weather has always been a concern for Colorado players, contributing to the fact that neither CSU nor the University of Colorado has a program. It also affects how college and professional scouts look at the state's high school players, Haggerty said.
“You kind of feel like you’re left out due to the fact you play 18 games in high school and probably four of them are going to get snowed out,” said Haggerty, who played at Mullen High School in Denver. “People aren’t coming there to watch.”
That can be even harder for players from small towns like Bridges.
“It was kind of frustrating, especially coming from a small part of Colorado that wasn’t known for producing high-end athletes,” Bridges said. “If there was a scout it was JUCO and D-II. That was probably the most frustrating part. There are probably kids in California who are getting so many more offers just because of where they’re from.”
Pustay said to get exposure he played in a summer league in Las Vegas for two years. That eventually helped him get to the College of Southern Nevada, from which he was able to transfer to UNM.
Another problem that has emerged is the cost of out-of-state tuition at most schools has risen sharply in recent years, which Pustay said has cost many Colorado players the chance to keep playing beyond high school.
“I know a lot of my kids from my high school who had to give it up,” Pustay said. “A lot of them were decent players and could play other places. It was just the lack of exposure.”
All of those factors have made UNM's Colorado players happy to have a strong program just down the highway that was willing to give them the opportunity.
“I hadn’t talked to (the) University of New Mexico till my senior year,” Haggerty said. “I hadn’t talked to many D-I schools, period. And so when they came and called me I was hoping to come here immediately. I've enjoyed it, it’s close to home and they have a good program.”
The Lobos will face Northern Colorado in a four-game series this weekend, starting Friday at 6 p.m. at Lobo Field.