ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When it comes to La Cueva’s baseball program, the word ‘rebuilding’ doesn’t apply.
Less than 10 months removed from their fifth state championship in six years, the Bears must find a replacement for their one-two punch starting pitching rotation that carried them to the Class 5A crown against Oñate last May.
No problem. La Cueva will just reload.
Coach Stan McKeever will once again have the deepest, most talented pitching staff in the state as seniors Austin House and Abe Tarin replace the graduated Nolan Snell and Cory Lamont. After that is a long line of dominant hurlers starting with juniors Josh McAlister and James Diz, and sophomore Ryan Padilla.
Toss in a potent lineup anchored by stars like Padilla, senior catcher Mitch Garver and senior second baseman Cody Voelker, and La Cueva has all the ingredients of another championship run. Worthy challengers can be found in Rio Grande, Eldorado, Oñate, Valley, Rio Rancho and Carlsbad – but it’s clear the Bears are the team everyone’s gunning for.
“We’re not worried about what La Cueva’s doing, but, yes, we all know about them,” said Rio Grande coach Orlando Griego.
Rio Grande and Eldorado are expected to duke it out in District 5-5A while La Cueva’s stiffest test in 2-5A will come from Sandia and a retooling Santa Fe club. Cibola lost most of its starting lineup to graduation, but is still expected to contend for second place behind Rio Rancho in 1-5A.
The game to watch, however, comes today. Griego’s Ravens host La Cueva this afternoon in the South Valley. Considering the potential of both teams – more than a dozen players on the two rosters have already landed college scholarships, including all nine seniors on Rio’s club – it amounts to the most anticipated season opener in years.
Ironically, both teams will benefit greatly from offseason transfers. La Cueva landed Tarin, formerly of Oñate. Rio Grande got Kenny Giles from Eldorado. The two are bona fide draft prospects and two of the most feared fastball pitchers in the state.
Tarin has already signed with UNM, as has House. Lobos coach Ray Birmingham describes the two as the cornerstone of what he thinks will be the best staff in UNM history. For now, the two will be content rolling their 90-mile-an-hour heaters past befuddled hitters.
If Tarin was La Cueva’s gain, where does that leave the school he spurned?
Oñate was three outs away from a state championship last May, and aside from Tarin the Knights (2-0) return starters at almost every position. That makes them perhaps the strongest team in the state’s southern half and the biggest threat to La Cueva in May.
“The expectations are there, much higher than they’ve been before,” Oñate coach David Reyes said. “I have a good feeling about this year, I really do.”
Four mainstays from the 2008 team include shortstop/pitcher Randy Montoya, catcher Vicente Fernandez, pitcher/third baseman Joe Koerper and shortstop/second baseman Josh Loera. All are seniors; Koerper and Montoya have signed letters of intent with New Mexico State.
Santa Fe was 5A’s most unlikely success story of 2008. After years of toiling at the bottom of the totem pole, the Demons managed to beat the likes of La Cueva, Rio Rancho and Valley during the regular season before being dismissed by the Bears in the state quarterfinals.
The Demons (who open today at Rio Rancho) have seven starters returning including three, four-year starters in shortstop Konrad Mueller, left fielder Andy Hyde and center fielder Anthony Ratliff.
No 5A school has had tougher luck at state the last two years than perennial favorite Carlsbad. The Cavemen lost extra-inning quarterfinal games, first in 2007 to eventual state champ Rio Rancho and then last year, a crushing 8-7 loss to Oñate. Carlsbad led that game 7-2 in the seventh inning.
“It’s tough to lose those kind of games,” said Cavemen coach Kenny Groves.
Carlsbad already has suffered a setback this season, losing pitcher Kenneth Lopez, the team’s No. 2 arm, to a broken leg.
That leaves juniors Andrew Castillo and Matt Chavarilla to assume more of the workload. The Cavemen are fairly young, Groves said, and begin the season with a short bench.
In 3-5A, it is shaping up to be the Las Cruces entries doing battle.
Las Cruces is off to a 5-0 start, Mayfield 4-1.
The Bulldawgs have eight starters back, five of them being three-year starters including pitcher/infielder Steven Florez, second baseman Kyle Mall, catcher Chris Silva, outfielder Nick Sandoval and infielder Jacob Lilley.
It’s a strong offensive team, coach Gil Padilla said, and no surprise he’d say that after Las Cruces scored 63 runs in five games in a tournament in El Paso over the weekend.
The Bulldawgs are at Rio Grande for a doubleheader on Saturday, at noon.
Mayfield and coach Miguel Gomez return most of its pitching, led by righties Diego Rodriguez, Mike Ormseth and Javier Ybarra.
But the Trojans did lose 12 seniors, and aside from right fielder Jordan Bernal Mayfield is littered with new faces.
Valley, always a factor in 5A, is young so the Vikings need some of their best talent – which includes all-Metro shortstop Josh Garcia, third baseman Ben Swisher and staff ace Josh Parraz – to have big seasons.
The Vikings did benefit from the addition of catcher Chris Wallis, who transferred from Rio Rancho.
The Rams, they’ve been a semifinalist in each of the past two years, and look poised to make another run.
Top returners include senior third baseman Robert Rodela, senior pitcher Alex Wehner and senior outfielder Bryer Mueller. Rio Rancho is rebuilding up the middle, however, after losing Wallis and seeing their shortstop and second baseman graduate. Sophomores Iseha Hines and Kris Martinez will share those duties this year, coach Ron Murphy said.