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Baseball: Nothing set in stone as LA opens 2008

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By Mike Cote

Early season baseball in northern New Mexico is always something of a crap shoot.Some seasons, Los Alamos and other northern prep teams can’t practice outside until late March because of snow.The Hilltoppers caught a weather break this week, however, and were able to get out to Bomber Field to get some practice time before their season opener Tuesday. They will host Belen’s Eagles to get the season rolling, assuming, of course, the weather holds.Early season also often means the Hilltoppers are practicing short-handed, whether it be indoors or out. At least five basketball players and a hockey player are still taking part in their winter sports this past week, as are plenty of other players from other schools.“That’s just they way it goes, “ Hilltopper manager Mike Gill said.These challenges, however, are nothing new or unique to the Hilltoppers. The key becomes getting through them before their opponents.Los Alamos will also have the additional challenge of filling out its batting order and defensive alignment throughout the course of the nondistrict season.Gill has made no bones to his players this preseason that all the starting jobs are anyone’s for the taking.“It’s all up in the air,” he said. “Every position is up for grabs. I still haven’t even decided who’ll be the starting pitcher Tuesday.”Eating up innings on the mound shouldn’t be a problem for Los Alamos, however. Los Alamos will field as many as nine pitchers, although the exact rotation and bullpen spots haven’t been cast, either.Particularly, the starting rotation is very much open. Graduates Alex Twibell and Drew Benage supplied 12 of Los Alamos’ 14 wins on the hill last season.Senior Jeremy Kasik has seen early season pitching work, and five juniors will be pushing for innings, not to mention three sophomores.Zach Mang, who is scheduled to be back from hockey this week, will likely figure into the mix on the mound and newcomers Pat Berkebile and Scott Berkebile, who recently moved to Los Alamos from Arizona, have also had reps this preseason.Mang, a returning All-District 2AAAA player, is also penciled in as the starter in center field. Outfielder Zakk Walterscheid made the All-District second team as a sophomore last season.Gill isn’t the least bit wary of keeping the positions open for the early part of the season, however.“It makes it really fun at practice as a coach,” he said. “I don’t know how it is for the players, but with the kids competing for positions, it makes us better as a team.”Los Alamos graduated its middle infield off last season’s squad, as well, not the least of which was second baseman Aaron Gutierrez, who was the District 2AAAA player of the year and a North/South All-Star.Eli Pulliam is trying to make a transition from third base to shortstop this preseason, and Adam Eberhart is pushing for the starting second base job.Following Tuesday’s opener, which starts at 3 p.m., Los Alamos will be on the road for most of the rest of March. Los Alamos will go up to the Four Corners twice — Saturday for a doubleheader against Piedra Vista and March 20-22 for a tournament at Aztec. It doesn’t return to Los Alamos until a March 28 date with Albuquerque.District 2AAAA play opens April 9 at Taos.Los Alamos was the runner-up in 2AAAA behind Bernalillo and advanced to the state AAAA playoffs as a 12 seed, but was dropped in the first round by fifth-seeded Moriarty, 4-0. Los Alamos has been a first-round victim at state in each of Gill’s first three seasons, something Gill would like to avoid in 2008.“I’m tired and the kids are tired of not getting past the first round at state,” he said. “Our first goal is to get there, but it would be nice to get past that bump.”