ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Whether or not the Rio Rancho High School baseball team will win another state championship this May depends on many things.
- On the state of the Rams’ as-yet underdeveloped pitching, which has been the backbone of several recent championships.
- On the development of rivals like Eldorado and (especially) La Cueva locally, and of Carlsbad as well.
- On Rio Rancho’s ability to take everyone’s best shot as a defending state champ.
One thing’s for certain: the Rams are no wallflowers. They like their chances. Certainly Baseball America magazine does, ranking the Rams 27th nationally.
“We have a shot to make a run,” longtime coach Ron Murphy said.
With eight starters returning, the Rams open 2014 with an offense more polished than the one that beat Sandia last May in the finals, and a potentially exceptional defense, led by a pair of five-year veterans in the middle of the infield – and, arguably New Mexico’s best outfielder in right.
Rio Rancho is new behind the plate, and perhaps not yet fully developed as a pitching staff, but the Rams appear to be Class 5A’s favorite as the season begins.
The Rams, in fact, already are 3-2, having played in a recent tournament in El Paso.
Sophomore Chris Carr takes over behind the plate for Marcus Martinez. That’s the major new change.
Martinez, a varsity member since his eighth-grade season, is now at shortstop. The Rams’ other five-year guy, Eli Cappello, is at second base, and Cappello also is one of Rio Rancho’s top pitchers. Junior Wyatt Kelley is another strong arm on the mound, but the best arm on the team belongs to right fielder Vic Chavez.
Not only does Murphy believe this team is stronger offensively than last year, this is also the fastest team he’s ever had at Rio Rancho.
“We’re dangerous,” he said.
La Cueva is perceived as the top local threat to Rio Rancho.
The Bears are terrific up the middle with shortstop Jeff Deimling and second baseman Alex Howard, and Howard and Chad Smith give La Cueva a formidable 1-2 option on the mound.
“We’ve got a lot of quality guys and quality arms,” Bears coach Gerard Pineda said. “I like this club.”
Eldorado is getting buzz; the Eagles feel they have more pitching and enough offense to challenge La Cueva in 2-5A.
“I just think they’re gonna be a little more competitive,” said 5A’s dean of coaches, Eldorado’s Jim Johns, who begins his 27th season. He is expected to reach 500 career wins sometime this year.
Sandia graduated all its starters from last season as the Matadors rebuild.
“Right now,” Matadors coach John Gunther said, “it’s a work in progress.”
- In District 1-5A, Rio Rancho is the clear favorite. Volcano Vista was ravaged by graduation and will have seven starters with no varsity experience. The upside? The Hawks’ pitching looks to be set, including impressive sophomore southpaw Tanner West who already has given a verbal commitment to UNM.
“The biggest obstacle,” VV coach Kevin Andersh said, “is how to score enough runs to win a lot of games.”
Switch-hitting catcher Daniel Herrera is probably Volcano’s top bat.
- Over in 5-5A, Rio Grande, like Volcano, took some graduation hits. It’ll be a lineup full of mostly new faces, and a mixture of youth and age, coach Orlando Griego said. The Ravens could have six starters who are freshmen or sophomores.
“The kids that I have are very capable,” Griego said. “Ordinarily, they wouldn’t be ready for this level, but fortunately for us they are.”
Valley’s Bo Coleman should be one of the metro area’s top players and pitchers, but junior Connor Reece, a potential ace, broke a bone in his throwing elbow and, best-case scenario, wouldn’t return until mid-April.
Atrisco Heritage, coming off a strong 2013, has a new coach in Chris Trujillo.
CLASS 4A: St. Pius is the defending state champion and the Sartans return a handful of key contributors from the team that beat Piedra Vista in the finals.
This team should have some of the strongest pitching in 4A, led by Kent Keeling, Tristin Rizek and Kyle Piersol. Piersol is a UNM recruit, and he is St. Pius’ most effective returning offensive weapon.
“These guys are mentally and physically ready to take on the challenge,” St. Pius coach Marc Hilton said. “I’m very confident we can make another run.”
Academy, a 4A semifinalist last spring, returns seven starters, led by shortstop Colby Brown. The top part of the Chargers’ rotation should allow them to make a strong push this season.
CLASS 3A: Hope battered Ruidoso in the state final 10 months ago, and the Huskies return almost everybody, and their pitching is deep enough to give them a healthy chance to repeat.
Sandia Prep, which also returns a majority of its starters, hopes to finagle its way into the picture.