Last fall, a trio of Mountain Vista High School alumni set foot on campus to join the University of Minnesota baseball team. The paths they took to get there were all unique but led to the same place.
Two years removed from leading Mountain Vista to the 2018 Colorado Class 5A State Championship, sophomore Jack Liffrig and freshmen Sam Ireland and Drew Stahl are all teammates once again. However, during that title run, none of them would have anticipated that they would still be playing on the same team in college.
"Both of them getting looks from the school I was going to, it caught me off guard at first," said Ireland. "But I was open to it for sure. I liked it. I thought it was a good idea."
Of the three, Ireland's path to Minnesota was the most straightforward. As a junior in high school, he had already committed to the Gophers and head coach John Anderson. That plan never changed for him leading up to the fall of 2019. The journeys Liffrig and Stahl took to Minneapolis were not nearly as linear.
During its 2018 title run, Mountain Vista leaned heavily on Ireland and Liffrig as a one-two punch at starting pitcher. Following the championship, Liffrig had graduated high school and went on to play baseball at the University of Utah.
After spending one season with Utah, Liffrig decided to enter the NCAA Transfer Portal. It was then that the Gophers began contacting him. As Liffrig began learning more about Minnesota's program, he knew that was where he wanted to continue his college career.
"One thing I wanted to make sure of was, would I like it if Sam wasn't going here," Liffrig said. "I honestly fell in love with the campus, the coaches, the players, everything they have built in Minneapolis, and it was an added bonus that Sam was going here."
The next to join Ireland at Minnesota was his childhood friend, Stahl. Stahl and Ireland had played on the same team since little league. With Stahl initially committed to Washington State, it seemed their playing careers together would end after high school.
But in 2019, Stahl decommitted from Washington State following a coaching change in the program. Already graduated from high school, Stahl needed to find a new college to attend. Once again, the Gophers came calling, but Stahl was hesitant to commit at first.
"When Minnesota reached out to me, my initial reaction was, 'No way,' because that was Sam's thing," Stahl said. "If he wanted to go to college and leave behind all the high school buddies and start a new track, it was going to be important to me that I didn't step on his toes."
Before choosing Minnesota, both Liffrig and Stahl wanted to check with Ireland. As college is a time of increased independence, they wanted to make sure they weren't intruding on their high school teammate.
"The more I talked to the coaching staff, the more I fell in love with the school and the people there," Stahl said. "When I reached out to Sam, he was super supportive and was totally welcoming, and so was Liffrig."
When Ireland heard the news, he was more than happy to have Stahl and Liffrig join the program. He knew Liffrig and Stahl were both talented players and said it would be nice to see some familiar faces during his freshman year.
As freshmen, Stahl and Ireland saw playing time during the abbreviated 2020 campaign. Stahl started five games, batting .250 and finishing with a perfect fielding percentage. Making seven starts and 16 appearances, Ireland made an impact at the plate with a .303 average, recording three multi-hit games. He also pitched on five occasions, ending the year with a pair of saves. Liffrig took a redshirt year in 2020, but was happy to see Ireland's and Stahl's success.
"I knew they were going to hit the ground running," Liffrig said. "Being able to see them have the success they had early on, it's probably better than seeing yourself have success sometimes."
For all three players, being Division I players from Colorado is a point of pride. They feel much of the state's talent gets overlooked and are glad the Gophers are beginning to build a recruiting pipeline in the area.
"Having coaches expand into Colorado is a really good thing," Ireland said. "There's a lot of talent here and a lot of people are getting passed up on because we are a cold-weather state."
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic cutting the baseball season short, Liffrig, Ireland and Stahl returned home to the suburbs of Denver. When baseball resumes and they return to Minnesota, it appears the trio will be key contributors for the Gophers moving forward, just as they were at Mountain Vista High School.