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Young Jaguars team is on the prowl

Capital High School’s Alan Gutierrez, a senior, participates in batting practice at the school Thursday. With former baseball player Nicholas Salazar now on board as coach, the program is showing improvement. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

When former Capital baseball player Nicholas Salazar came back to his alma mater, he found his former program in desperate shape.

“There wasn’t really anything in place for a while,” he said. “The program, I don’t know what happened before. It wasn’t established any more.”

The Jaguars never really had a world-beating program, but it at least used to be competitive when Salazar was a player.

In the 10 years before Salazar took over the program in January 2018, Capital had combined to win 19 games and never more than four in a season. The stretch included a 55-game losing streak.

Improvement has been slow, but noticeable, as the program has already won 18 games in Salazar’s reign, and that includes a drastically reduced slate last season and this season.

This season, the Jags sit 6-3 and 2-2 in District 5-5A heading into Saturday’s doubleheader against Los Lunas, including a road split against well-regarded Rio Grande.

What’s more, Salazar is quite optimistic for the future as, for the first time, his baseball players and the school’s softball players will have the opportunity to have a sports class he will lead.

“I think it’s necessary,” he said. “With year-round athletes, it helps to build their knowledge of the game in the classroom, not just on the field. I can show them more video, more analysis and help the student-athletes learn the game better.”

Those extra hours of work will pay dividends down the road for the athletes and the program, he said.

“That off-season work is the key to a baseball player’s development,” Salazar said.

Another key is simply building the numbers up throughout the program. When he took over, there were fewer than 20 players. By his second year, the numbers were up to 30 and, in 2020, he had 41. COVID took its toll on this year’s squad, leaving 32 players, but Salazar said he is quite certain those numbers will rebound this next school year.

And the team is young, with just four seniors, including ace pitcher Allen “Fernando” Valenzuela. The other two top pitchers are both juniors, Andon Toya and Sebastian Collazo.

Recently retired from the military and now a teacher at Capital, Salazar said he appealed to players through the discipline his professional life provided and being honest with them.

“I’ve just been talking with the students, letting them know that I want to help them, not just as athletes, but also to help prepare them for life itself. A lot of them saw me in uniform, straight from work. That started grabbing attention because it was something out of the norm. Then, when people saw how hard they worked and were having fun, more of their friends wanted to come out.”

That even included his own son, senior outfielder Dominic Salazar, who played for his dad as a freshman, but then gave up baseball for two years and attended Cleveland in Rio Rancho.

He returned to Capital for his senior year and his dad talked him into also coming back to the team. And the younger Salazar returned to a much different experience.

“Starting off, Capital is a school that wasn’t known for baseball,” he said. “They weren’t known to have a great baseball team and the outlook of the players themselves was really kind of the same thing. But everybody is working to get better at the game. We’re going into games thinking we can win, we can win these ballgames. And we’ll do what we can to win.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the team plays on a modern turf field.

“The old one was so bad; every day, we were throwing rocks off of it,” Dominic Salazar said.

It all adds up to a new diamond Jags era.

“While you’re in it we focus on how are we better today? And I try to live that myself,” coach Salazar said. “We try not to look back on things until the season is over, then we look back, and try to figure out what we did right and what we need to do going forward.”

Even Dominic Salazar has found the season a rewarding one.

“When I said I was done, I didn’t plan on coming back (to baseball),” he said. “Then, I came back to Capital. And my dad talked me into playing again. I’ve been having fun. It’s been good.”