LA has tough test to open season

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By Mike Cote

Rarely does the Los Alamos Hilltopper baseball team have to go deep into the season to find out what kind of team it has.
This year won’t be an exception to that pretty hard-and-fast rule.
The Hilltopper baseball team opens its season Saturday with a doubleheader in the Four Corners area. The Hilltoppers’ opponent is none other than the defending Class 4A state champs, Piedra Vista.
Los Alamos lost some key seniors off the 2012 squad and will have at least one of its returning starters, junior third baseman Jake Downs, out for at least a few weeks. Hilltopper manager Mike Gill said going into Saturday’s opener, he still isn’t exactly sure what players he’s going to put in what positions in the first game or even if those players will be in those same positions in the nightcap.
And facing a Piedra Vista team that won the Class 4A title game last year with a crushing 15-1 defeat of Miyamura, the order seems daunting.
Nevertheless, neither he nor his team would have it any other way.
“It’s become a nice tradition,” Gill said, noting the teams play in Ricketts Park, home to the annual Connie Mack World Series. “You get to see right where you are right away, playing arguably the best team in 4A year-in and year-out.”
Los Alamos is coming off a solid 2012 season which saw the Hilltoppers clinch their fourth consecutive District 2-4A title and finish with a record of 19-8.
However, the Hilltoppers aren’t fielding the same type of team. In fact, as of Wednesday, the Hilltoppers weren’t even carrying a full starting 9 on their roster, let alone bench players — the roster was expanded to 12 players by Thursday morning.
Los Alamos is doing a meticulous evaluation process of its incoming players, the vast majority of which are underclassmen.
As such, Gill thinks it could take the entire month of March before the Hilltoppers have settled on a regular starting lineup.
“We’re still determining who’s going to be varsity and JV at this point,” said Gill, who is going into his eighth season of steering the program. “We just got our basketball guys out (Wednesday). We’ve still got a couple of hockey players coming out. We got our wrestlers Monday…but we’re used to it. You have to share athletes at Los Alamos. We’re trying to do something for Piedra Vista, but basically, we’re still evaluating kids. A lot of kids are new to the varsity.”
Gone are some of Los Alamos’ key position players, including outfielders Thomas Russell, Kyle Parks, designated hitter Austin Aslin and second baseman Nick Baker.
The biggest losses, however, are the top battery of catcher Zeke Zumbro and ace pitcher JD Weiss.
Gill said despite the challenges, he’s not looking for excuses for his team and said his players have to be ready to execute come District 2-4A season, which gets going for the Hilltoppers April 3.
The nucleus Los Alamos has returning, however, is talented and has plenty of experience.
Los Alamos has one of the top young players in New Mexico, Jared Mang, returning for his sophomore year. Mang has been starting – and hitting out of the 3-hole – for the Hilltoppers since his eighth grade season.
Mang, one of the more versatile players on the Hilltoppers’ roster, can catch, pitch and play in the infield as needed, and has been among the top hitters in the state since his first year with the big club.
Mang and senior Steven Williams are penciled in as the top two starting pitchers for the Hilltoppers, with Connor Mang, Jared’s younger brother who also played varsity as an eighth grader last year, stepping in either in a relief role or as a third starting pitcher.
Williams, who plays first base when he’s not pitching, gave the Hilltoppers some quality innings during the 2-4A season in 2012.
Tristen Hill, who got some starting nods last season as a platoon catcher, will likely be the Hilltoppers’ No. 1 backstop, with newcomer Trevor Pacheco also looking to see innings behind the plate. Gill said Hill’s arm strength has improved considerably since last year and he will be tougher to run against.
Following Saturday’s doubleheader, Los Alamos will open at home Tuesday against Pojoaque Valley. Just two days later, it will take on El Paso (Texas) in the opening round of the St. Pius X Invitational.
Along with Piedra Vista, Los Alamos will see likely 4A contenders in St. Pius, Academy, Los Lunas and Miyamura, the team that knocked the Hilltoppers out of the 2012 playoffs in the opening round, all in the month of March.