La Cueva High (Albuquerque, N.M.) coach Gerard Pineda sat his team down after its first game of the season on Feb. 28, and talked about the success his players could have.
Valley High (Albuquerque, N.M.) had just topped the Bears, 5-3, threatening to start La Cueva down the path to another 10-loss season—which La Cueva experienced in both 2015 and 2016. The Bears weren’t about to let that happen again.
"We tried to make sure that they knew how talented they were," Pineda said, "and what they were capable of."
Whatever else Pineda said to his team that night, it worked. No. 9 ranked La Cueva won its next game. And the next. And then won 26 more en route to defeating Cleveland High (Rio Rancho, N.M.), 10-4, for the New Mexico 6A State Championship.
The title is La Cueva's fifth in the past 10 seasons, and the fourth in the eight years that Pineda has been at the helm.
"We won in 2010, my first year here at La Cueva," Pineda said. "We went 28-2 and I think that year we won 27 in a row to finish. It's very comparable to that team, although that was one of the last teams with aluminum bats."
The 2017 La Cueva team topped that with a 28-game win streak and an offense powered by wooden bats. New Mexico is one of the few states that uses wooden bats at the high school level, making some of the numbers even more impressive.
Richard Ware hit .527/.583/.956 with six home runs and 44 RBIs, all among the best in the state, to go along with nine doubles and six triples. Ware has yet to commit to a college, but he's looking at several junior colleges, and would have a good shot at the New Mexico Player of the Year award if it weren't for Trevor Rogers—BA’s No. 28 draft prospect.
"He got hurt about the fifth game of his junior year and so this summer he was pretty slow recovering," Pineda said. "He's a guy that I think a lot of people will learn about as he gets older."
La Cueva shortstop Jack Pineda—the coach’s son—led the team with a .607 on-base percentage, posted a ridiculous 21/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and stole 21 bases while getting caught just once.
The most notable player on La Cueva's championship team, though—at least from a draft perspective—is Jonathan Stroman, a senior righthander committed to Arizona.
In addition to leading the team in innings pitched (58.2), strikeouts (81) and ERA (0.60) Stroman served as one of the team's most important leaders.
"I still think he's got a ton of upside," Pineda said. "As a kid he's really starting to mature. You could see his leadership role on this team with all the younger guys. And the experience that he had this summer with the World Wood Bat and some of the Area Code Games. He was able to relate some of that confidence that he got from those outings got to rub off on a lot of our guys I felt."
One of the younger players who was impacted by Stroman was sophomore pitcher Ben Schoneman, who went 10-0, 1.44 and walked just six batters in 58.1 innings.
"He was the biggest surprise of everybody," Pineda said. "He's a low 80s guy, three pitches, changeup, breaking ball that he can throw at any time. One of our coaches, comparing him, (said) he's a high school-type Maddux guy. He was a big surprise."
While Schoneman might have been a surprising element to this La Cueva team, no one familiar with the area would be surprised to hear that the Albuquerque club won yet another state championship. Pineda is forming quite the dynasty at New Mexico, with his teams combining to go 187-41 over the past eight seasons. Overall, La Cueva has won nine of the past 15 New Mexico state championships.
"It's a feather in the cap for the school," Pineda said. "We're fortunate to have talented kids . . . La Cueva's had some really good teams, Jordan Pacheco and James Parr are two big leaguers who were on the same team in 2003-04. Those probably have to be the best teams that the school's ever had, but I would say this team's up there, a close second or third.
"They've been a joy to coach."
Wes Alexanderson got the win against Cleveland, becoming the third member of his immediate family to pitch his high school team to a state championship, as pointed out by James Yodice of the Albuquerque Journal. His older brother Trey did it in 2014 for La Cueva, and his father Russell pitched Eldorado to the title in 1985.