John Shepard has been part of the chase pack long enough to know what his pursuers have planned.
“We know we’re going to get everybody’s best game,” he said. “We’re not going to sneak up on anybody, and that’s a lot of pressure.”
The longtime coach of the Rio Rancho High School boys soccer program watched the Rams lift the blue trophy in the spring, as after years of being close they finally broke through with a state championship, downing Albuquerque High 1-0 for the Class 5A crown in April.
Rio Rancho is already off to a 4-1 start in the fall, and will appear in the semifinals of the Albuquerque Metro Championships at 7:15 Wednesday night – against last spring’s Class 4A state champ, Albuquerque Academy.
District rivals La Cueva and Sandia are in the other semi on Wednesday at the APS Complex, at 7 p.m. The four semifinalists advanced through pool play last week.
Rio Rancho is led by junior midfielder Jamal Bynum, who had the assist on the game-winning goal in the state final against AHS, and first team, all-state defender, senior Kaden Schufft.
“They say one of the hardest things to do is to win a state championship, and even harder is to defend it,” said Shepard. “The chemistry, and the mental strength (needed to) deal with that pressure is going to be our biggest challenge.”
AHS has a new look, with former Valley coach Orlando Ramirez taking over the Bullodgs from Lucien Starzynski.
Senior Elian Gonzalez, who can play pretty much any position, is one of AHS’ best returners, as is junior center midfielder Beala Boucker.
Although the Bulldogs graduated a large group of seniors, Sanchez said, “the boys coming in are stepping in really nicely.”
Volcano and La Cueva are two sides expected to be a factor into late October and early November.
La Cueva coach Easy Jimenez describes his Bears as young, “very young,” with an entirely rebuilt back line. La Cueva has 13 sophomores on this roster, and only four seniors. Two of the prominent 12th-graders are center mid Aidan Romero and big forward (6-foot-3) Brendan Baird.
“We’re one of the youngest teams,” Jimenez said. “But we are probably the most talented team in the state.”
Sandia coach Ryan Sanchez called his Matadors “quick, technical, lethal. They love to go at defenders, that’s probably the best thing.”
A dynamic group is headlined by speedy senior center midfielder Nico Moralde, who in essence quarterbacks the team, Sanchez said, and junior forward Connor Cousins, two great finishers.
“We’re gonna be in the hunt for the top,” Sanchez said. “We’re very talented this year.”
Like a handful of other schools, Volcano Vista has seen the roster somewhat depleted with players joining the New Mexico United Academy. One of those players, veteran all-state senior goalkeeper Evan Kowalski, may share time between NMU and Volcano Vista. Senior Alex Dixon (first team all-state in the spring) is the center anchor on the back line.
“We have potential,” Volcano coach Billy Thiebaut said. “If Evan is around, I think we can be in the hunt.”
In District 1-5A, both Cibola (Patrick Tapia) and Atrisco Heritage (Javier Hernandez) also have new coaches this year, adding some intrigue to their chances; Cleveland has been a regular playoff contender, although the Storm is off to a rugged 2-3 start.
From District 5-5A, Rio Grande is definitely a team that could challenge AHS’ supremacy. And in 2-5A, Eldorado is a team several coaches believe shows promise as the Eagles – who beat Rio Rancho in metro pool play – battle with La Cueva and Sandia.
CLASS 4A: Defending state champion Academy won a thrilling overtime game against Lovington in the state championship game last spring, and both those schools could be back in the fall season’s final game in November. Even with three wins in the first weeks of metros, coach Laney Kolek described Academy’s start as “shaky.”
The Chargers return seven starters from the spring, including first team all-state senior striker Oliver Kumar, who had the game-winner in OT in the state championship game, plus senior midfielder Neven Zapatka, junior defender Ethan Saiz and senior center mid Liam Spears.
“I think with this group, especially if we can keep all our players healthy and in full stride, they (could) make a late season run,” Kolek said.
Hope, Highland and St. Pius all expect to be in the mix, as well.
The Huskies – who are in the same district as the Chargers – are off to a 3-0 start, led by senior center back Jarrett Claypool. Hope features only three seniors, and it will have a handful of freshmen in the lineup. Locating goal scoring will be a focus, coach Steve Kokulis said.
The Hornets and Sartans are rivals in another 4A league; Highland is going to have to overcome a lack of players, with just a dozen at the moment, coach Nick Madrid said. But Highland, Madrid added, has two alphas in junior goalkeeper Diego Ortega (first team all-state in the spring) and junior midfielder Yahir Jimenez.
One of the rare sights in the spring was the absence of the St. Pius boys at state, even in a reduced field of eight teams. The Sartans are young, with 13 of their 19 players either in the ninth or 10th grade. Senior forward Frankie Gutierrez will be expected to contribute heavily to the cause for St. Pius.
From outside the metro area, in addition to Lovington, Los Alamos and Santa Teresa are among the other teams that could make a charge.
CLASS 3A: Sandia Prep is the defending state champion here, having beaten rival Bosque School 2-0 in a hotly contested state final in the spring.
And despite losing two standouts to NMU, the Sundevils bring back eight starters, including outstanding goalkeeper, junior all-stater Alex Jeffries. Freshman midfielder Finn Saunders already has proven his offensive prowess in Sandia Prep’s quick (3-0) start.
“If we can figure out how to store,” Sandia Prep coach Tommy Smith said, “I think we can be pretty good.” His roster, too, saw the NMU Academy scoop up two of his best players.
“I think we’ll be a handful for anybody,” said Smith, whose team takes on Hope on Tuesday.