High school baseball: Albuquerque-area teams and players to watch this year - Albuquerque Journal

High school baseball: Albuquerque-area teams and players to watch this year

St. Pius X players celebrate their victory over Albuquerque Academy in the 2022 Class 4A State Tournament game. The Sartans loom as a favorite in 4A this season with an experienced lineup. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico’s prep baseball season is underway in some cities. Around the metro area, it starts this week.

Tuesday marks the opener for many schools, and most everyone will open over the next week or so.

The biggest on-field change is this: aluminum bats have returned after a few years with wood/composite bats. Which means run production is sure to spike dramatically.

Carlsbad is the defending Class 5A state champion, having beaten Sandia in the final last season. Left-handed pitcher Mack Mabrey is perhaps the key returner for the Cavemen as they embark on a title defense. (They’ll be at Rio Rancho’s tournament at the end of March.)

Around the metro area, there are going to be challengers. Where does that list begin?

That’s the thing, there probably isn’t one consensus team that looms as the most elite of the group. It could be Rio Rancho. It could be Sandia. It could be La Cueva. It could be someone else.

“There are nine or 10 really good teams this year (both inside and outside the metro area),” Cleveland coach Shane Shallenberger said. “I honestly don’t think there’s a clear best team. It’s kinda gonna be who gets hot at the end.”

District 1-5A remains one of the state’s best leagues, with Rio Rancho, the Storm and Volcano Vista having been at the top of this district for years.

The Rams have seven starters back, including University of New Mexico signee, hard-hitting second baseman Vascon Smith, plus third-year varsity players Josh Boyer at catcher and Kai Fitak at third. Ace right-hander Seth Lee leads a strong pitching staff.

“Most depth we’ve had on the mound, ever,” Rio Rancho coach Ron Murphy said. “I think our pitching is gonna take us pretty far this year.”

Volcano Vista lefty Regan Hall is one of the state’s best front-line starters on the bump. He has signed with Illinois. Others Hawks to watch include senior outfielder Aidan Zacarias, plus senior LHP Danny Yaksich.

Cleveland only has three seniors; key returners include senior pitcher Austin Barela and senior infielder/pitcher Logan Kinter, and the Storm has been one of 5A’s most consistent winning programs.

Cibola and coach Robert Puentes were definitely more competitive a year ago, and hope to raise their game another level this spring even with only three starters back led by senior RHP Aidan Joyce. Ryan Santillanes is the new head coach at Atrisco Heritage; his older brother Fernando is the coach at Highland. This gives the metro area two sets of head coaching brothers; Mike Puentes, Robert’s brother, is Bernalillo’s head coach.

From District 2-5A, La Cueva is taking advantage of a new travel rule that is being instituted this spring. The Bears are traveling to the Phoenix area at the end of March to play four games. Albuquerque Public Schools gave every spring sports team the option of taking one such out-of-state regular-season trip this spring, if they so chose. But teams have to pay for the expenses themselves, that was the caveat. La Cueva is spending nearly $20,000 make this trip, Bears coach Gerard Pineda said.

La Cueva returns only one starter in senior pitcher/outfielder Jackson Kay, although the Bears are still sure to be one of 5A’s most talented groups and a factor in 5A. Pitching depth is certainly a plus, Pineda said, but run production, he added, is “a bit of a question, seeing as how we only return about 60 at-bats total.”

Sandia, on paper, is probably the preseason favorite in 2-5A. Top players who return for the Matadors include pitcher/infielder Nico Barela, second baseman Adriel Figueroa-Brito, third baseman Aiden Griego and shortstop Talan Barraza.

“It is a good group,” new Matadors coach Dave Hendrick said. “We felt this would be the year for us. We thought last year would be a bridge year, but we went on a run.”

Eldorado and Farmington are probably next in the 2-5A hierarchy, The Eagles are led by senior center fielder Jason Sims, who also pitches and hits in the 4 hole. West Mesa has just three returning starters and will need some young players to develop quickly.

Rio Grande coach Orlando Griego thinks Los Lunas is probably the best top-to-bottom team in 5-5A, although Tigers coach Paul Cieremans says the rivals are on equal footing. Those two and Albuquerque High should be the top teams in that league.

Outfielder Leon Cereceres, a fine southpaw and an outstanding bat, is Rio Grande’s top returner and the Ravens are stacked with left-handed pitching. Los Lunas ace righty Ryan Castillo is probably one of 5A’s most effective starters, and catcher Paul Cieremans is another top returner. Jabby Cooper, who has signed to play football for Eastern New Mexico, is AHS’ best player.

Class 4A

Defending state champion St. Pius only had one senior on the field last May when it won the state championship over rival Albuquerque Academy. The Sartans are surely the preseason favorite to win it all again, with other challengers including Valley, Belen, Grants, Artesia and Goddard, among others.

The Sartans have probably the most fearsome offensive player in New Mexico in any class in senior left-handed swinging first baseman/DH Gene Trujillo, who has signed with UNM.

Others back at St. Pius include senior center fielder Malachi Peña, regular first baseman Cohen Mulville and junior left-handed pitcher Ruben Jepson. Pitching depth is probably the only area where St. Pius needs shoring up, Sartans coach Matt McCoy said.

“It’s a great group,” McCoy said. “Everyone is out to get them. They’ve got to do it on the field.”

Other teams in St. Pius’ district (5-4A), like Belen, return most of their lineups. The Eagles only lost two seniors, and four current seniors – pitchers Tyler Martinez, Kenny Trujillo and Malachi Chavez, plus middle infielder Luciano Gomez — have signed college letters of intent.

Grants’ pitching is going to be some of the best in 4A, and the Pirates hope to push St. Pius and Belen in that district. Valencia as well lost few players to graduation.

Hope Christian and especially Valley from District 6-4A figure to be in the discussion come May. The Vikings, led by outstanding senior left-hander Alex Gilliam — he and Volcano Vista’s Hall are two of the best lefties in the state — are going to be a factor with a roster that also includes four-year veterans like senior Caeden Jojola (the No. 2 starting pitcher) and senior outfielder Ricky Henderson.

Hope has two good young pitchers back in junior Joe Merrick and sophomore Jacob Gergen. The Huskies only graduated two players off last year’s team that won 17 games. Junior middle infielder Alex Bradbury is among the top threats in the Hope lineup.

Academy has been in the 4A state final in each of the last two years, but the Chargers were hit as hard by graduation as just about anyone in 4A, having lost eight seniors. Coach Chris Alexander describes this year as a rebuild, but the Chargers could contend for a top spot after Valley. Bernalillo (which graduated 11 seniors) and Del Norte, which won just four games last season, both are looking for improvements over 2022.

Class 3A

East Mountain reached the state final last May, losing to New Mexico Military Institute, and the Timberwolves graduated a handful of seniors off that squad.

Sandia Prep was a state quarterfinalist last season.

Players to watch

  • Gene Trujillo, senior, 1B/DH, St. Pius: If teams pitch to him, and there’s no promise of that, he could go off with 15-20 home runs this season.
  • Vascon Smith, senior, 2B, Rio Rancho: Smith’s great eye at the plate makes him one of the most dangerous offensive players in all of 5A.
  • Regan Hall, senior, LHP, Volcano Vista: He is the second Albuquerque player to sign with Illinois of the Big Ten in the last two seasons.
  • Alex Gilliam, senior, LHP, Valley: After Hall, this is probably the top lefty in the metro area. Maybe even the best one.
  • Nico Barela, senior, RHP/IF, Sandia: The Matadors’ No. 1 starting pitcher, a hard thrower, will be crucial in their hopes of getting back to the 5A state final.
  • Leon Cereceres, senior, OF/LHP, Rio Grande: Hits close to .500 the last two seasons and he is part of that Rio Grande pitching staff as well.
  • Jabby Cooper, senior, OF, Albuquerque High: A kid that can do it all.
  • Seth Lee, senior, RHP, Rio Rancho: The Rams’ pitching staff is loaded, but when they are facing crucial games in April and May, this is the arm Rio Rancho will turn to most often.
  • Austin Barela, senior, P/1B, Cleveland: Barela is going to be a high-impact player for the Storm both as a front-line starter, and in the lineup.
  • Ryan Castillo, senior, RHP, Los Lunas: One of 5A’s most underrated starting pitchers.

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