2024 high school softball preview: Can anyone from the metro area break through?

Feb. 29—It's been three years since one of the Albuquerque metro area's softball teams played for a Class 5A state championship in softball.

The 2024 season begins with a few teams that hope they can change that, although general consensus is that both Centennial and Alamogordo lead the parade of contenders. Carlsbad defeated Piedra Vista in last May's 5A state final.

From the metro area, the 5A challenger with perhaps the most upside is the La Cueva Bears.

La Cueva returns eight starters to a lineup that was potent. That includes Hannah Hunt, a senior, in the circle. And junior Liliana Montoya is a New Mexico State commit.

"I think our pitching is good enough to carry us for a while," La Cueva coach Ron Romero said.

Some of the best offensive talent in Albuquerque can be found on the Bears' lineup card.

Senior center fielder/catcher Addisen Byers, who has signed with Western New Mexico, hit nearly .450 with eight home runs and 39 RBIs. Senior utility player Toni Lucero gives Romero flexibility defensively. Ciena Perez, Nadya Moreno and Genesis Jaramillo all will provide additional pop and power for La Cueva.

La Cueva is opening this weekend at a major tournament in Bullhead City, Arizona, one of the best events in the country. It is necessary to gauge the Bears' readiness to contend.

"That's exactly why we're doing this," Romero said. "We get to see where we're at early in the season. ... I'm fully comfortable with our pitching, but we have to hit the better pitchers. That's been our downfall."

Also from District 2-5A, Sandia was a state tournament team last season, and expects to again be competitive.

Alissa Ahmed, a senior pitcher and third baseman, hit 10 home runs and drove in 50 last season for Sandia. Senior middle infielder Marissa Ramirez is another top hitter. And sophomore Lilianna Villanueva is back in the circle, having also belted nine homers a year ago.

The Matadors tied for third with Farmington last season in 2-5A.

In District 1-5A, which always is enormously competitive, Rio Rancho and Volcano Vista appear ready to duke it out for supremacy. And both have designs, like La Cueva, of winning multiple games in the postseason.

The Rams in particular could be a threat, having lost nobody to graduation.

"We'll be much better than last year," longtime Rio Rancho coach Paul Kohman said. "Hopefully, we'll get to at least be playing on the last Friday of the year, if not Saturday."

Rio Rancho, like La Cueva, is opening this weekend at the tournament in Bullhead City. Pitching effectiveness, Kohman said, is vital to the Rams' season, especially since Rio Rancho's offense expects to be potent.

Volcano Vista lost five players to graduation who are now on a college roster. One of them who remains is senior shortstop Sixx Arnold. Sophomores Audrianna Jim and Audrey Gutierrez share duties in the circle for the Hawks.

One of the college signees on this team is senior catcher/outfielder Jaslyn Barela.

Cibola was a top-eight seed at state, although the Cougars graduated the state's single-season home run champ, Jalyn Montes, and have a new coach in LaRae Melvin. She was the school's JV coach last season, and is Cibola's third head coach in three seasons.

Crucial to Cibola's chances is left-handed senior pitcher Zeyda Olvera, and the Cougars, Melvin said, have depth behind Olvera, who also plays a key offensive role. Another of the top returning players is senior outfielder Anna Barraza.

Cleveland is the last local team to play in a state final, in 2021. The Storm has a young roster, but does feature outstanding outfielder Mercedes Lovato, a two-time all-state center fielder.

Cleveland is young. There are only four seniors on the team; one of them is Layla King who led the team in batting.

Atrisco Heritage gained a prominent transfer in Mel Macias, who was a key bat in the La Cueva lineup, but she won't be eligible for varsity this spring. She is expected to play for the Jaguars in 2025.

Joe Chavez is the new head coach for Albuquerque High, a team that won 21 games last season and could be the favorite in District 5-5A. The Bulldogs already have wins this week over both Sandia and Cibola, scoring 28 runs in the two victories.

Senior utility player Natalia Padilla is among the best players in the AHS lineup, and sophomore Raquel Waldrop is the Bulldogs' No. 1 pitcher.

Capital was the only other team in 5-5A to qualify for state last season.

From Class 4A, St. Pius is coming off a 19-win season and the Sartans, who won two games at last year's state tournament as a 4 seed, could face a strong challenge from Belen in District 5-4A. Seniors Gabriella Casco and McKayla Cable both hit over .600, and combined for 110 hits and 90 RBIs last season for St. Pius.

The Eagles have a new coach in Oscar Medrano, who coached Cibola last season and who believes Belen is poised to make some noise in May.

"We're gonna be pretty good," he said. "I think we have a chance to go deep at state."

Medrano said St. Pius was still the team to beat in its district, however.

For Belen, junior Lorissa Scott and senior Danae Chavira (who also swings a heavy bat) give the Eagles options in the circle, Medrano said. When one pitches, the other plays second base. Freshman shortstop Honey Mirabal has Division I potential, Medrano added.

Bernalillo, from District 6, was a team that made it into the second week of state last season, and the Spartans return one of 4A's top pitchers in senior Autumn Arriola, who struck out over 220 batters last season. The lineup will be a mix of veterans and younger starters.

"We've got youth, but a lot of game IQ, so I think we'll be right at, if not above, where we were last year," Bernalillo coach Marissa Valencia said.

For any of the metro teams to make a push, they're going to have to solve the traditional dual southern powers in 4A (Artesia and Silver), plus perhaps Gallup.

Albuquerque Academy was a top-8 seed last season, and returns No. 1 pitcher Melissa Purcella, a junior. The Chargers have a new head coach in Haley Parsons, who won three state championships as a player at Piedra Vista.

Shortstop Lilia Braun and junior catcher/third baseman Bella Swanson also will be key players in the Academy lineup, Parsons said.

Valley didn't have any home games last season as there were issues with its field. Those have been solved, and the Vikings hope to compete with Bernalillo and Academy for the top spot in their league.

With five returning senior starters, coach Phil Cordova said, Valley is looking to return to the state playoffs again this spring. Speedy Jaylyn Kelly at the top of the lineup provides spark; Aaliyah Penn is the Vikings' senior shortstop; catcher/infielder Viviana Montoya, like Kelly, was all-district last season; and sophomore Makayla Ringo was key in leading Valley to the postseason.

"If everything falls into place, we're hoping to be in the race for a district title," Cordova said.

Robertson is the two-time defending state champion in Class 3A, and Loving the two-time defender in the Class 1A-2A division. The dominance from programs outside the metro area is even more pronounced than it is in Class 5A.

In the second-largest class, Valencia (2015) is the last school from the metro to reach the championship game. In the third-largest class, Bernalillo, six years ago, was the last area team to get to the season's final game.