´Toppers open season with tough test

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Baseball: LA contending with injuries early but is optimistic younger guys will step it up in 2012

Say one thing about the Los Alamos Hilltopper baseball team: it’s not easing into the season.
Limping into the season? Most definitely.
The Hilltoppers opened their 2012 campaign Saturday at with a doubleheader against Piedra Vista, the two-time defending state champion, which is rumored to have perhaps the best team it has ever had this year. Immediately in Los Alamos’ future is Los Lunas, a potential top-five team, before it opens its home season March 3 against Moriarty.
“I love it for us,” Los Alamos veteran manager Mike Gill said. “We may take our lumps, but it helps us get ready for district.”
Los Alamos should indeed be battle-tested for the start of the District 2-4A season, which gets going in just about a month. Los Alamos is the three-time defending district champ and thinks, despite a lot of new faces around the clubhouse, it can repeat.
There may be some personnel changes, but this season, there are also some major equipment changes.
Last year, the New Mexico Activities Association voted to make wooden bats standard throughout the state. Metal bats have long been the standard at the prep level but those are now gone.
Arguments for wooden bats generally have to do with safety. Batted balls don’t come off wood nearly as hard as they come off metal, putting players at less risk of injury.
Most players have come up through the Little League ranks, where metal bats are the standard, so switching to wood is a considerable change for batters. Home runs will likely be fewer and further between this season because wood bats detract from hitters’ power.
That isn’t breaking the heart of JD Weiss, Los Alamos’ ace pitcher, who will be returning for his senior year.
“Wood bats are great,” said Weiss. “It makes pitchers who don’t throw as hard relevant again. You can make mistakes and not necessarily have them leave the yard.”
That could be advantageous for Los Alamos, which typically only features one or two players in its lineup with home run power.
Unfortunately, the Hilltoppers will be without one of them for at least the first month of the season. Super-freshman Jared Mang, who led the team in home runs and slugging percentage as an eighth grader last year, fractured his finger during practice last week.
Mang will be missed through the first part of the season, but Gill said he’s hopeful Mang will return in time for 2-4A play.
Along with Mang, Los Alamos will also be without Matt Frye and Henry Steinkamp, two important cogs on the roster. Both are out with injury as well – Steinkamp actually suffered his injury during the fall soccer season.
Los Alamos traveled to Piedra Vista without some other key personnel, including its top outfielder, Thomas Russell, who is finishing up basketball season.
However, the Hilltoppers will get a chance early in the season to see some of its newer personnel, not the least of which is Conner Mang, an up-and-coming eighth grader.
Mang has shown promise at the Little League and club levels and could help out the pitching staff until his older brother, Los Alamos’ No. 2 pitcher, returns to action.
Mang’s first taste of varsity action, in a scrimmage Feb. 18 against Belen, was two innings pitched in which he struck out four batters but also issued four walks.
Following Saturday’s doubleheader, Los Alamos will make a return trip to the Four Corners area in the middle of next month for a three-day tournament. Prior to district, Los Alamos will face Hope Christian and take part in the St. Pius X Invitational.
Piedra Vista, coming off a 26-3 season, appears again to be the team to beat. Albuquerque Academy, which squared off Piedra Vista in the 2011 title game, should be a solid 4A team again this year, along with St. Pius. Valencia is also getting some buzz around the 4A ranks this preseason.
To counter, Los Alamos should have a solid pitching corps once it gets to full strength. Along with Weiss and the Mangs, Russell and Nick Baker, another basketball player, should be able to provide good innings, as well as Steven Williams.
Directing the pitching staff will be senior catcher Zeke Zumbro, the team’s MVP last year.
With several newcomers expected to see playing time, including Jake Downs, Danny Finn and Tristan Hill, it will take some time to get everyone up to speed and Gill said expectations must be kept reasonable at this point.
“We want to make every play we’re supposed to make,” he said. “I want to play a good mental game. If we got out of there with no mental lapses, that’s what we’re looking for out of this year.”
Once things get ironed out, however, Los Alamos is confident it can continue with its recent string of success.
In 2011, the Hilltoppers finished the season 14-10, going 10-2 in 2-4A play before bowing out in the first round of the state tournament to Artesia.
Los Alamos is hoping to return to its form during the stretch run of district play instead of its performance against Artesia, in which it fell 12-2 in both ends of the tournament-opening doubleheader.
“I think we’re capable of doing everything we believe we can do,” Weiss said. “We believe we can do big things. We’ve got a lot of talent. This is one of the best teams we’ve had in awhile.”