ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The 2011 high school baseball season is already under way, with Rio Rancho at a tournament in El Paso. Cleveland opens the season today, with an 11 a.m. doubleheader against 4A power Farmington.
A preview of the season ahead:
CLEVELAND: The Storm (13-14 last season) reached the state playoffs last year, but lost in the first round to Eldorado.
Cleveland has arguably the state’s best player in switch-hitting senior catcher Blake Swihart, who hit nearly .600 last season with 12 home runs.
With a couple of very reliable sticks hitting behind Swihart in the Storm batting order — junior third baseman Matt Villalobos and junior outfielder James Cleveland — Swihart should be in line for another monster season in 2011.
“He has set some high standards for himself,” Storm coach Shane Shallenberger said.
Swihart has already signed with the University of Texas, but is expected to be a high draft choice by a Major League team in June.
Eight starters return for the Storm. Others to watch include junior shortstop/pitcher Robert Montoya, junior center fielder/pitcher Nathaniel Lucero and senior second baseman/pitcher J.J. Thomas.
As the Storm move into their second varsity season, Shallenberger said Cleveland must become a better pitching club, and the Storm must improve defensively.
Cleveland has half a dozen pitchers that should be able to get outs, but none of them would be classified as overpowering. Montoya and Villalobos are the best of the lot.
The Storm are expected to battle Volcano Vista in District 1-5A. They’ll be back on the field Tuesday, at home versus Moriarty.
RIO RANCHO: Repeated attempts to contact coach Ron Murphy for this story were unsuccessful.
The Rams (27-3) are coming off a state runner-up finish last year; they lost 14-2 in the finals to La Cueva.
Rio Rancho was ravaged by graduation, especially at pitcher where the Rams’ best arms have all moved on. That will be one of the priorities for Rio Rancho in 2011, to rebuild the pitching staff. It’s been a cornerstone of the program for years.
Rio Rancho opened the season Thursday with a 10-0 loss to Socorro, Texas. The Rams are in four tournaments this year. In March, they go to Farmington and Las Cruces in back-to-back weeks, then return home to host their own event at the end of the month.
BERNALILLO: The Spartans won 18 games last season for first-year coach Dominic Toledo, and the Spartans should be one of Class 4A’s solid teams.
Five starters return: senior pitcher/infielder Dillon Darnell; junior pitcher/shortstop Thomas Duran; senior catcher/pitcher Ryan Garcia; junior center fielder/pitcher Donovan Aguilar; and senior first baseman Jordan Ludi.
“All our pitching is back, so we should be pretty solid,” Toledo said.
Darnell was one of 4A’s top hitters last season, Duran had close to 30 RBIs, and Toledo anticipates his team being stronger offensively this year. Bernalillo will have some inexperienced outfielders that will have to grow up fast.
The Spartans open Thursday at Los Lunas.
Here is a quick look at Cibola and Volcano Vista, district rivals of Cleveland and Rio Rancho in 1-5A:
CIBOLA: The Cougars, coming off a 19-9 season that ended with a postseason loss to Eldorado, were ravaged by graduation — and transfers. Cibola lost 12 seniors, and several returning players left for Valley.
As a result, Cibola has no starters back from last spring.
“For the most part,” second-year coach Ramon Gonzales said, “we’re starting off fresh. At this point, we’re learning how to play the game at the varsity level. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but the chemistry of the team is going in the right direction.”
Some players to watch include: junior center fielder Adrian Ramirez; sophomore middle infielder Troy Mares; senior utility player Zak Molina; sophomore outfielder/pitcher Drew Janis; and sophomore middle infielder Jason Schoolcraft.
“We’ll have to do all the extra things in order to come up with wins,” Gonzales said. “A lot of people won’t think much of us, and that’s fine, but we’re building on the foundation we started last year.”
The Cougars open Thursday against St. Pius.
VOLCANO VISTA: The Hawks figure to be one of 5A’s best teams as they make the jump from 4A to 5A. But the promotion has proven to be a tough one in football and basketball.
“I think for us,” third-year head coach Kevin Andersh said, “it’s not going to be as difficult. We’ve always had a lot of 5A teams on our schedule, but with the amount of kids I have back, this is probably a good year for us to make this transition.”
Volcano Vista is loaded at almost every position, starting at second base with sophomore Andre Vigil who hit about .500 with 10 home runs last year, and he missed the first third of the season.
Other top players back for the Hawks include: senior catcher Kyle Byer; senior first baseman T.J. Trujillo; junior shortstop Dalton Bower; and senior outfielders Victor Sanchez, Andrew Villareal and Aaron Lovato.
Sanchez is Volcano Vista’s best pitcher, and one of the best arms in the metro area. He also adds a heavy bat to the middle of the lineup.
That lineup also includes a transfer from California, third baseman Jordan Yussman.
The Hawks have half a dozen three-year starters as they’ll look to challenge Cleveland in District 1-5A. If there is one major concern, it’s pitching depth
“I don’t expect us to blow anybody’s doors off,” Andersh said, “but we’ll be a decent team.”
Volcano Vista opens with a doubleheader a week from today at 4A power Piedra Vista.