For almost everyone in the metro area, Tuesday marked opening day of the 2010 high school season. Last year’s state finalists picked up where they left off last May at Isotopes Park.
This one went exactly like the last one. Rio Rancho, with some late-inning heroics, beat La Cueva, the team with the national rankings.
Tuesday, it was Ben Matheson’s two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the seventh that gave the title holders a dramatic 5-3 victory in a well-played game worthy of a playoff atmosphere.
Despite La Cueva’s No. 16 national ranking by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, Tuesday’s result underlined that for now, the road runs through the defending champions — who are already 5-1 — and not the trendy Bears.
“It’s a lot like last year,” said Ram coach Ron Murphy, whose team has captured two of the last three 5A titles. “We don’t claim to be better than anybody else, we just want to be a better team.”
The Rams are the first No. 1 of the season in the poll released by the New Mexico High School Coaches Association.
Rio Rancho hopes to duplicate a formula that was proven successful in 2007 and 2009: a deep pitching staff, good defense and a versatile offense that finds all kinds of ways to score. Tuesday was a good example of that. The Rams hit two homers, and trailing 3-2, and also scraped home a run to tie the game in the bottom of the sixth.
“To me, ranking doesn’t matter,” said Rio Rancho senior pitcher/outfielder Josh Walker. “It’s for the parents and the fans and all that.”
Walker leads that pitching staff and earned the win Tuesday in relief. Joe Sena, Matheson and Gavin Biswell give Murphy what he loves almost more than his beloved New York Mets: options.
Senior catcher Ethan McCranie handles the pitchers. He, Walker, Matheson and junior shortstop Kris Martinez are the returning starters.
Right behind Rio Rancho (5-1) is La Cueva, which opened under new coach — and former Bears player — Gerard Pineda.
“It was great to be back in this uniform,” Pineda said. “I enjoyed my time here as a player and I’m just thrilled to be back.”
La Cueva has some holes to fill, but features a pair of Division I talents in pitcher Josh McAlister (Arizona State) and outfielder Ryan Padilla (UNM). Padilla blasted two home runs Tuesday, including a go-ahead, two-run shot in the sixth.
“We’re working to see where everyone fits into positions,” Padilla said. “But this team is coming together pretty well.”
Among the infielders, only first baseman Nate Ross returns for the Bears.
“We’ll be there,” Pineda promised. “We’ve got talent at that school and we’ll find some guys who will fill in nicely.”
On Saturday, the Bears hook up with the team just behind them in the rankings, No. 3 Eldorado, which should again be very much in the conversation. The Eagles lost some experience and power in the middle of the lineup, and that’s where they’ll begin to show change in 2010.
“It’ll be a speed/power tradeoff,” said veteran coach Jim Johns, starting his 23rd season with the burnt orange. “We have more speed, but we have less power, at least on paper.”
The Eagles have an abundance of left-handed pitching, including UNM recruit Sam Wilson, plus Joseph Gonzales and Paul Roney.
Carlsbad’s Matt Chavarria leads what everyone expects to be a very strong Cavemen entry. No. 4 Carlsbad returns seven starters and its entire pitching staff, led by Chavarria.
Fifth-ranked Sandia, which reached the final four a year ago, has seven starters back under first-year head coach (and Sandia alum) Al Foster. The Matadors have plenty of capable bats on both sides of the plate, and the pitching staff is solid, led by Robert Gunther and Nicasio Gonzalez.
Oñate, a state finalist in 2008 and state semifinalist last year, appears to be the class of District 3-5A. The most prominent of several transfers is pitcher Roby Romero from Santa Fe, who has already signed with El Paso Community College.
The Sandoval brothers, Aaron and Jason, along with big-hitting first baseman John Cachora, are among those who give Oñate strong buzz.
Valley, Las Cruces, Cibola and Rio Grande round out the first top 10 of the year.
CLASS 4A: Defending state champion Albuquerque Academy was decimated by graduation. A definite plus is that shortstop Alex Bregman returns. The sophomore already has a 90 percent scholarship offer from Oklahoma State, and has been given a tryout for Team USA’s under-16 team, Chargers coach Josue Ayala said.
The top five in the 4A poll are Piedra Vista, Farmington, Artesia, Volcano Vista and Academy.
The junior-heavy Hawks have a strong No. 1 starter in Victor Sanchez, but pitching depth is a concern. “We’re still a year away from being a good team,” Volcano Vista coach Kevin Andersh said.
CLASS 3A: Defending state champ Sandia Prep is also junior-dominated. The top juniors include middle infielders Nick Nelson and Michael Eaton.
Class 5A Top 10
(From NM Coaches Association)
1. Rio Rancho
2. La Cueva
8. Las Cruces
10. Rio Grande
Metro Players To Watch
Sam Wilson, sr., P-CF, Eldorado: Headed to UNM next season, doesn’t get enough credit for how heavy a bat he swings. The southpaw is also the Eagles’ No. 1 starting pitcher.
Josh McAlister, sr., P, La Cueva: The skinny righty has signed with Arizona State and figures to pitch often in crunch situations for the Bears.
Braulio Hernandez, sr., P, Albuq. High: The Yankees, Mets, Twins and Royals are all supposedly interested in the hard-throwing righty who is only 5-10 but whose fastball reaches 90 mph.
Josh Walker, sr., CF-P, Rio Rancho: There’s not much Walker can’t do; he’s one of 5A’s best all-around athletes. He can run, he’s got power and he’s the Rams’ ace.
Ryan Padilla, jr., P-CF, La Cueva: The 6-foot-2, 180-pound lefty has already given an oral commitment to the Lobos. He batted cleanup for the Bears in their 29-win season a year ago.
Blake Swihart, jr., C, Cleveland: The 6-foot-1 switch-hitter is the darling of the Class of 2011 and has some of the country’s blue-blood Division I programs nipping at his heels, including Texas, Rice and Oklahoma State.
Alex Bregman, soph., SS, Abq. Academy: Possibly the metro area’s best pure position player, Bregman is incredibly polished at a young age. Excellent hitter, good glove.