La Cueva High School boys soccer coach Easy Jimenez is not one to shy away from talking up the virtues of his program.
But with respect to the 2018 season, even Jimenez had to make a slight concession.
“I’m gonna be honest,” he said. “I told my boys that it goes through Albuquerque High this year.”
Those two teams, who competed for last November’s Class 6A title, are at the top of the list of contenders for this year’s crown in the newly configured Class 5A along with Cleveland and Volcano Vista.
“Albuquerque High is probably the class of the state,” Volcano Vista coach Billy Thiebaut said.
Longtime Rio Rancho coach John Shepard said overall parity has infiltrated the entire division.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “There are probably 18 schools that have a legitimate shot at getting into the final four. There’s such balance.”
Last year, AHS beat La Cueva in the state final. The Bulldogs were 19-1-1 as they won state for the second time since 2015. Seven starters return for coach Lucien Starzynski.
“We have a strong group, but we can’t cheat the process,” he said. “You can’t take anything for granted. Having said that, no question we have a very strong team with high expectations.”
Jimenez’s Bears will once again be stout.
“All the levels are solid,” Jimenez said. “This is the deepest La Cueva team we’ve had in the last 15 years.”
From District 1, Cleveland and Volcano Vista have teams that could appear on the season’s final day – which this year is Nov. 9. For most local teams, the season begins with the two-week-long Albuquerque Metro Championships, which start Monday at the APS Complex.
Led by all-state talent players in forward Gabriel Legendre and defender Jake Lent-Koop, the Storm is an extremely popular choice to advance deep into the postseason.
“We’re setting our goals pretty lofty,” Cleveland coach Shaun Gill said. Chief among the Storm goals is to find a way to win a game or two at state, which Cleveland hasn’t been able to do.
Thiebaut already has one state title with Volcano Vista. “Best-case scenario,” he said, “we should be competing for a state championship.”
Also from District 1, Rio Rancho was a state semifinalist last season. And there is a newcomer this year in Atrisco Heritage, a consistently winning program.
“Going into that district, we have to be perfect,” Jaguars coach Micah Newman said. “It will be difficult, but if we all perform, I can’t imagine how we wouldn’t get at least four teams (to state) out of that district.”
District 2 contains La Cueva and Eldorado, as usual, but also Farmington, Piedra Vista and West Mesa. The Bears will be strongly favored there.
There are five districts in Class 5A, which is now the state’s largest division. Districts 3 and 4 are filled with teams from southern and eastern New Mexico. One of those districts includes defending Class 5A state champion Alamogordo.
The new District 5 includes AHS, Sandia, Capital, Rio Grande, Santa Fe and Manzano.
CLASS 4A: This is an expanded classification. Valley and Highland have gone down into this division while Hope Christian, the defending Class 1A/4A state champ, has moved up.
Albuquerque Academy advanced to the final last year in 5A before losing to Alamogordo, which is moving up and won’t be in this reconfigured 4A classification.
The Chargers and St. Pius are, as usual, going to be major threats in addition to possibly Highland, which had a tremendous 2017, Los Alamos and Moriarty. The Pintos reached the state semis last season.
“If we don’t get to the last day, it’ll feel like we underachieved,” St. Pius coach A.J. Herrera said. “I know how much (the Sartans) want to win the state tournament.”
Although Hope is a returning state champion, the Huskies lost 16 players from that squad.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Hope coach Steve Kokulis said. “It will take some time to find an identity and see where our goals are going to come from. It’ll be a different team than we’ve had the last few years, for sure.”
Hope, Academy and Highland are now league partners in District 6-4A.
CLASS 1A/3A: Some of the state’e top small-school powers – Bosque School, Sandia Prep and Santa Fe Prep among them – are now joined in District 2-1A/3A.
The Sundevils fell to Hope in overtime in the 1A/4A final a season ago.
“That will help motivate (his players) to try and get back to that position,” longtime Sandia Prep coach Tommy Smith said.
NOTES: Some of the new coaches around the metro area include former Los Lunas coach Daniel Martinez, who is now at Cibola; former St. Pius standout Nick Madrid, who has taken over at Highland; and Jorge Vela at Bosque School, where he was serving as an assistant last year.