Back to the ballpark

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The 2014 prep baseball season is well underway and all three Valencia County high school squads have seen their share of successes.

All three area teams made the post-season playoffs last season, but only reigning District 6-4A champions Los Lunas made it past the first round. This year looks like it could be a break-through season for the trio of county teams.

Kenn Rodriguez- News-Bulletin photo: IMPACT PLAYERS, such as junior Daniel Barela, center, will be the key to a successful season for the Valencia baseball team. The Jaguars have fielded young teams the past few years. That trial-by-fire has produced a team that is youthful yet experienced, said VHS coach Carlos Carrasco.

The Eagles are off to a 9-3 start in 2014 and coach Steve Contreras, who is in his seventh year leading Belen baseball, said he’s pleased with the progress of his team, which returns nine lettermen from a 2013 squad that was long on youth and short on varsity experience.

“We were really young last year,” Contreras said. “Our tough district season and the experience of being in the playoffs ended up being a positive experience for the boys.”

The Eagles, who finished 11-14 last season, were left out of the Class 4A playoffs in 2012, so the return last year, cut short in the first round by Roswell Goddard, gave Belen a taste they’re eager to get again this year.

Seniors Austin Baca (shortstop), Timmy Vialpando (pitcher/catcher), Andrew Castillo (pitcher/center field), and Gabriel Lucero (pitcher/third base), make up a solid core of leadership for the Eagles, along with underclassmen Nick Aragon (junior; pitcher/right field), Wyatt Matheson (junior; infielder/pitcher), and Adan Contreras (sophomore; second base/outfielder).

The team’s pitching, a pre-season concern, has been shaping up, said Contreras, and the team has hit well in its nine wins. The coach said the real key, however, has been Belen players coming together as a “complete team.”

“Their camaraderie has honestly; been the real key,” Contreras said. “They’ve been playing as a team and working hard.

Kenn Rodriguez- News-Bulletin photo: BELEN SENIOR PITCHER Timmy Vialpando leads a youthful Eagles squad that is looking to return to the Class 4A State Tournament for a second year in a row, as well as a District 6-4A title.

“A lot of the guys on the team got playing time last year as juniors and sophomores, and that really helped,” Contreras said. “We got a real good commitment from the guys in the summer, which helped build the team concept.”

Like his fellow area coaches, Contreras sees the eventual district champ coming out of Valencia County. But the league should be competitive.

“I really believe, from top to bottom, this is the strongest district in 4A,” he said. “All three county schools are going to play competitive games. It’s going to come down to being disciplined.”

Tigers coach Pete Candelaria leads a Los Lunas squad that is senior-laden but also lost a lot of seniors from last season — most importantly the Tigers, who finished 21-8 and bowed out in the Class 4A quarterfinals to future district opponents Santa Teresa, lost all their valued pitchers.

But Candelaria said the process of bringing up a new crop of throwers is coming along.

At the center of the battery rebuilding is senior Darron Gallegos, who along with fellow senior Nate Abeita, junior Jerome Abeita and sophomore Jake Rivera make up the cast of characters Candelaria hopes will carry the team into the post-season.

So far in 2014, the 7-6 Tigers have seen sporadic hitting, something Candelaria said he thinks will come around.

“We’re right where we should be,” he said of the team’s offense. “The hitting will come around.”

Seniors Chris Padilla (first base/pitcher), Justin Yalch (third base) and Dakota Wood (catcher) are among the team’s most consistent at the plate and on the field, said Candelaria, along with freshman center fielder Thai Ewing.

Kenn Rodriguez- News-Bulletin photo: LOS LUNAS SENIOR Dakota Wood is one of seven returning seniors who the Tigers hope will help them retain the district title as well as going deeper into the state tournament.

“I think we have a good shot,” Candelaria said of repeating as district champs. “I think the title will stay in the county. I just don’t know which team will win it.”

Sixth-year coach Carlos Carrasco’s Jaguars were the only team in any class to push their first-round opponent to three games in the state tournament last year.

The 11-18 Jags pushed eventual state semifinalists Santa Teresa to a deciding game three but fell short, just as they did in their quest for a district title in 2013 — largely due to their youth and inexperience.

But the experience of tough loses should pay off this season, as Valencia returns 12 lettermen and seven starters, including seniors Anthony Gonzales (shortstop/pitcher) and Tyler Klein (pitcher/shortstop), both of whom Carrasco said are leaders for the group.

The Jags are off to a 7-4 start in 2014 with a squad that hits well and has solid defense on the field.

“We’re swinging the bats really well from top to bottom, scoring a lot of runs and play pretty good ball overall,” Carrasco said. “We’ve got to fix some things, but overall I’m pleased.”

Carrasco said the team has lacked mentally at a few key moments in recent games, making fielding mistakes that have allowed teams back into games. But the team has reversed its usual trend of starting slowly, something Carrasco said he hopes continues.

With seniors Josh Baca and East Mountain transfer Josh Doyle in the fold now, as well as impact players such as juniors Daniel Barela (catcher/infield/pitcher) and Garret Garcia (pitcher/utility), the Jaguars are poised to pounce for post-season play.

“We have a really good group,” Carrasco said. “Without a doubt, our experience, with all these guys coming back, is a strength. We should be able to compete for district and a state championship. It’s going to take us playing good ball and continuing to get better.”

NM Preps (www.nmpreps.com) has all three county teams in the top 10 — reigning District 6-4A champions Los Lunas (7-6) lead the way ranked No. 7. Belen (9-3) is at No. 8 and Valencia (8-4) is at No. 10.

Roswell Goddard (4-1) is rated as 4A’s top-ranked team with defending state champions St. Pius X (5-3) at No. 2.