While many of his teammates slept in last month during a spring-break baseball trip to Arizona, Shane Opitz was up early every day. After all, how often is one afforded a close-up view of a Major League franchise at spring training?
The Heritage (Littleton) senior shortstop attended the Chicago Cubs’ workout each morning, and it wasn’t just because his older brother, Jake, is in the system. He wanted to pick up on the nuances, the little things each player does to prepare himself as a professional ballplayer.
"The No. 1 thing about Shane is his work ethic," Heritage coach Scott Horman said. "He loves the game, he works at it, and he just gets it."
Sometimes Horman will be driving past the Heritage ball field on an off day and notice Opitz on the field, taking groundballs with his father, Jeff, a well-respected youth-league coach who has laid the foundation for several Division I players from the area.
That’s why Horman isn’t surprised by instances such as Wednesday’s, when Opitz’s two-run double to the opposite field produced the deciding runs in a 12-10 road win at Highlands Ranch. That’s why he’s not surprised that, in the footsteps his older brother, Shane will be playing at the University of Nebraska next season.
"It doesn’t mean you’ll be a great baseball player just because your dad knows the game and your brother knows the game," Horman said. "But Shane doesn’t take anything for granted. He understands the game at a different level, and Nebraska is getting the best position player in the state of Colorado, in my opinion."
A left-handed hitter with a cannon arm, Opitz is batting .543 with two home runs and 25 RBI for the Eagles (9-5), one of several teams in the mix in the stalwart Continental League. Most impressive is this: he’s struck out once in 46 at-bats and committed only two errors in 54 chances (.963 fielding percentage). Essentially, you can be assured it is Opitz’s abilities, not the name recognition, that earned him a spot on next season’s Huskers.
"The one thing that really helps is that I know the coaching staff, just from Jake going there," Opitz said. "I don’t think it has anything to do with the name or anything; it’s just that I know how the whole system works out there."
That being said, Shane is thrilled to be the second middle infielder named Opitz to enter the Huskers program.
"It’s awesome," Opitz said. "Especially because my dad’s whole family is from Nebraska and we’ve always been huge Huskers fans. When Jake went there, I got to see how they did things at the stadium and with all the fans. I’m really excited for the opportunity to play there."
Jake Opitz also was a shortstop at Heritage, graduating in 2004 before heading to Nebraska. In his senior season of 2008 with the Huskers, Jake batted .339 with 11 homers and 50 RBI (he’s now with the Tennessee Smokies in Double-A). One modification Jake made, however, was a switch from shortstop to second base in college. Shane acknowledges the possibility he could have to make a similar switch.
"Obviously I’d like to stay shortstop, but if I have to make a change, I’ll do that," Opitz said. "I just want to play."
Huskers coach Mike Anderson always has scoured Colorado well, and that’s largely because he is from Eaton and has a pipeline with several area coaches. Is he truly getting the best position player in the state? Horman, admittedly biased, believes so. Others think the jury is still out.
"He’s strong and he has strong wrists, and he’s dangerous because he plays in Colorado and the ball goes really far," Rock Canyon (Highlands Ranch) coach Tyler Munro said. "Whether that translates at sea level or at Nebraska, he’ll find that out."
What isn’t up for debate is Opitz’s love for the game. While on the baseball trip to Arizona, Kansas City Royals outfielder David DeJesus spoke to Heritage players for about 45 minutes. Opitz absorbed every minute of it. After all, he hopes to be the one speaking some day.