Glenwood Springs High School senior Blake Nieslanik endured a lot these past couple of years, from the challenges he and other high school sports participants faced during the pandemic to an injury this past football season that could have sidelined his chances to play at the collegiate level.
But his perseverance and determination paid off in the form of an invite and follow-up letter of intent to play football next fall for NCAA Division II Western Colorado University in Gunnison.
After putting up an impressive 1,009 yards rushing with nine touchdowns plus four catches for touchdowns in the pandemic-shortened alternative spring 2021 season that saw the Demons go 7-1, things were looking up heading into the traditional fall season.
Then, just after halftime of the first game of the season on the road at Harrison, Nieslanik tore a medial collateral ligament in his knee, forcing him to miss the next six games.
That could have kept him off the field for good, but a successful surgery followed by intensive rehabilitation and a strength and conditioning routine had him back on the field for the last three games of the season.
Though the Demons’ hopes of making the playoffs had been dashed with a tough middle stretch of the season, it was redemption enough for Nieslanik to get some good looks as a college prospect.
“They were like, yeah, give it a couple weeks and you should be good to go,” he said. “So I braced it up, taped it up and felt like I had a robot leg out there, but it was good.”
Nieslanik gave a few other colleges a look, but settled on joining a successful Western Colorado program that went 10-1 overall last fall and finished 8-1 in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
“I had visited there a couple of times when I was younger, and I just really liked the way it feels like home,” Nieslanik said. “Then obviously, they have a really good football team the last couple years, so that was another reason why I wanted to go there.”
Nieslanik intends to switch from the offensive side of the ball to defense, playing safety for the Mountaineers.
“I talked to the defensive coordinator quite a bit, and it seemed like a good transition,” he said.
Nieslanik played outside linebacker and safety for the Demons, but as is the case for most smaller high schools also lined up on offense.
That dual role experience can help in making the move from the prep ranks to college football, he said.
Pat Engle coached Nieslanik through all four years of high school, and noted his mental toughness, especially this past season in working through the injury.
“One thing that really stood out is he never asked, ‘Why me?’ That’s just not something he ever did. He never felt sorry for himself, ”said Engle, who recently announced he’s stepping down as the Glenwood football coach.
“From the moment that happened, the goal was to get himself back on the field, and he never lost hope,” he said. “Blake is one of the most mentally tough football players I’ve ever been around. And, for as talented as he was on the field, he’s about as humble a guy as I’ve ever met. Western got real lucky in getting him. “
Blake is the son of Thad and Tonya Nieslanik. Thad also attended Western for a year, and his aunt di lui, Glenwood Springs Middle School Assistant Principal Sandy DeCrow, is a Western grad.
“Blake is just kind and has a big heart, and cares for the people around him,” Thad Nieslanik said. “Once he sets his mind to something, he’s determined to finish it.”
Blake Nieslanik said it was tough to sit on the sidelines this past season when he was injured, but that gave him extra motivation, he said.
“I really just wanted to play football again, and that’s exactly what I did. So, this is a great opportunity, ”he said of taking his game to the next level.
Nieslanik said he isn’t settled on a major yet, but, “I’m pretty good at math so I’ll probably do something math-related.”
A dual sport athlete during his high school years in football and baseball, Nieslanik is taking his athletic prowess to the track this spring as a way to improve his speed for the college football season. He’s looking to run the longer sprints, and maybe try a field event, he said.