ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As the 2011 prep baseball season begins, naturally, the conversation drifts in one direction — toward the La Cueva Bears.
Not so much because the Bears are the defending Class 5A state champions or nationally ranked (No. 6 in one poll), but because the perceived gap between La Cueva and everyone else appears to be strikingly large.
“It’s the biggest discrepancy in talent from the top to the next level as we’ve had in a while,” Volcano Vista coach Kevin Andersh said.
“If there wasn’t a school named La Cueva,” Valley coach Chad Kuhn mused, “we’d be right there near the top. But they’re bigger, faster, stronger than all of us.”
Eldorado coach Jim Johns had this take: “If we can’t find some cracks in their armor, then everybody is playing for second.”
This dialogue doesn’t do much for the Bears necessarily as they prepare to open this afternoon against Atrisco Heritage Academy.
La Cueva coach Gerard Pineda is bemused by this dialogue, which suggests that the Bears are so superior to everyone else that it’s not even feasible to suggest that they have a target. After all, his pursuers say, you have to be able to see your target to shoot at it.
“It’s a very talented group,” Pineda said. “When you return as many players as we return, I could see why people would think that.”
When last spotted, La Cueva was demolishing Rio Rancho 14-2 at Isotopes Park last May. It was Pineda’s first season coaching his alma mater.
Of course, the job description goes beyond filling out lineup cards, but frankly, just doing that ensures La Cueva a fair chance.
The Bears are bolstered by what is probably 5A’s best pitching staff, led by left-handers Ryan Padilla and Stephen Carabajal.
Both have signed with New Mexico, but for now they’ll be working their way through the high school ranks. Matt Smith, one of the state’s premier shortstops, gives Pineda a right-handed option on the mound. Smith, Padilla and Carabajal were a combined 14-1 last year.
Smith and Padilla also hit over .500, as did senior second baseman Zach Nelson. Those three combined for 27 home runs in 2010.
The list of local challengers includes Volcano Vista, Sandia, Cleveland, Valley and nemesis Eldorado.
The Hawks return eight starters, including super sophomore Andre Vigil and senior right-hander Victor Sanchez. The Storm have the state’s most heralded senior, Texas-bound Blake Swihart, a switch-hitting catcher.
Valley has two key transfers, and a possible sleeper in outfielder Jared Valles, who Kuhn said could be one of the top five hitters in 5A.
The real wildcard may be Sandia. The Matadors might have the gallery of arms to negotiate La Cueva’s potent lineup. Sandia has four ace-caliber righties, each standing at least 6-foot-1.
That group is led by Kevin Collier, who missed his junior year with a bad back.
“We will be defined by our pitching,” Matadors coach Al Foster said.
Eldorado lost its top three pitchers, and is rebuilding the staff behind junior Thomas Lee, a Manzano transfer.