FARMINGTON — For only the second time in nine years, the defending 4A state baseball champion doesn't reside in Farmington.
The task of returning the blue trophy to San Juan County falls on young Piedra Vista and Farmington High squads.
The Panthers enter the preseason as No. 2 in the coaches' poll behind defending champion St. Pius X, while FHS was voted No. 3.
PV head coach Mike McGaha, whose team lost in the title game to the Sartans 7-6 last season, said he's not sure his team deserves to be ranked that high yet.
"Honestly, it was surreal to be three-time state champs, but it's going to be a different year for us," McGaha said. "In my tenure at PV, I've never claimed that we were young, but we graduated 11 seniors last year. It's not an excuse, though, because we still have the same job to do."
In the off-season, it wasn't the title-game loss to the Sartans that motivated the team, but rather the battle for open positions, the PV coach said.
"I think it would have been different if we were returning guys," he said. "The motivation came from the empty spots we have to fill."
With so many question marks surrounding the Panthers early in the season, PV will rely heavily on seniors Matt Martin and Kody Russell, both of whom have committed to play college baseball at New Mexico Junior College.
"They are 100 percent our leaders. This year, wherever Matt Martin and Kody Russell end up is where the Panthers end up," McGaha said.
The Panthers' pitching rotation also took a hit due to graduation, with PV losing about 75 percent of its innings thrown last season.
Gunner Archuleta has emerged as the No. 1 starter for PV, but behind him, there are still a lot of roles to be filled.
"Of our 14 varsity players, 12 have pitched for us at some point during their time with the program," McGaha said. "All of them are similar, though, so we're not sure of the mix we want yet."
The Panthers swept a doubleheader against Los Alamos on Saturday to open their season, but McGaha noticed a lot of room for his team to improve during the victories.
"The biggest disappointment — other than mental mistakes — is the approach to the game. I'd like to see them pick it up a notch," he said. "I want to get dirtier and faster and bring more to the game. I just don't like the game speed we're playing with. I don't think it's a lack of effort, but we're a little gun shy."
Farmington High finds itself in a similar boat to PV after the Scorps also graduated 11 seniors.
"We really have no idea what anyone's going to be like this early," FHS head coach Sean Trotter said. "We're a little inexperienced, but talented, and I think they'll be just fine."
FHS went into the state tournament last season as the No. 3 seed, but was bounced in the quarterfinals by No. 6 Albuquerque Academy.
"It left a bad taste, and they've worked as hard as anybody in the offseason," Trotter said.
The Scorps return first-team, all-state shortstop Lance Lee, who will also be relied upon to lead the FHS rotation.
"He gives you a chance to win every time he's on the mound," Trotter said of Lee.
Beyond Lee in the rotation, Trotter will slot in Beamer Wick as the No. 2 starter and will wait to see who emerges from the rest of his pitching staff.
"We have seven guys that I'm confident can go out and throw strikes," Trotter said.
Lee and Wick, along with Ethan Spellbring and Tyler Stock, will be expected to carry the lineup for FHS, while the younger hitters get their feet wet at the varsity level.
"It's a lot of guys who haven't had a lot of varsity at-bats past those four," Trotter said.
Trotter and McGaha expect the district title to be decided on the final day of the season between their two teams.
"It's a lot like it has been in the past," Trotter said of the two teams. "There's some parity in the two clubs with only a couple seniors both ways. Both are very similar. We've split three out of four years, but we just didn't get it done in the run differential. If we go out and compete, it comes down to who gets it done on that day."
Aztec will look to improve on a first-round exit from last season's playoffs after the Tigers earned the No. 9 seed a year ago.
Head coach Brett Alexander expects his team to fight for a top eight seed this season, while continually improving as the year goes on.
"I just want to see us grow. I know we'll have a tough start with the schedule we've put together, but we just want to gradually get better every game," Alexander said.
Alexander said he likes the work his group put in during the offseason and hopes it will pay off for the Tigers.
"It's early, but we've got to get going. We have 15 games in the first four weeks," he said. "I'm pleased with where our pitching is at. We've got to pitch and play good defense. If we can do that, the bats will come around."
Kirtland Central has a tough task ahead this season, with three playoff teams from a year ago in the standings.
First-year head coach Ron Axworthy is still getting acquainted with his team's strengths and weaknesses as the team waits for its full roster to be ready.
"We've still got six guys coming from basketball, three who are starters," Axworthy said. "But I've been pleasantly surprised so far. This year is a learning experience, but we're going to battle, compete and be fundamentally sound."
Bloomfield enters the season No. 5 in the 3A coaches' poll, and the Bobcats' head coach Frank DeHoyos believes his squad belongs among the top teams in the class.
"I think we have that kind of team, though I like to fly under the radar a bit," DeHoyos said. "The guys had a good summer."
The Bobcats lost a tough quarterfinal in last season's state playoffs 2-0 to eventual champion Hope Christian.
DeHoyos said that loss will be a building block for his program this year.
"It was a good step for the guys," he said. "We only had two seniors and that was a step in the right direction this year. Our work ethic picked up right where it left off."
DeHoyos said the Bobcats have a "solid stable of arms," and he hopes that pitching staff will carry Bloomfield until the hitting comes around.
"We have some speed and can hit the ball. A couple of guys just have to transition to different spots," he said.
The Bobcats outscored their District 1-3A opponents 112-3 in nine games last season and looks likely to cruise to another title against Shiprock, Thoreau and Wingate this season.
DeHoyos credited District 1-4A schools — which schedule the Bobcats late in the season — with helping get his team ready for state.
"The guys in 4A really help us out a lot. I don't know if they know how grateful we are to them for playing us during their district season," he said. "They keep us sharp, because they'll make you pay for any mistake we make."
Shiprock is coming off a state tournament appearance in 2013 after earning the No. 13 seed in the 3A bracket.
The Chieftains enter this season with a new head coach, Alfred Baer, who served as an assistant with the team for 14 years.
"We're looking really good," said Baer, whose team won its opener against Navajo Prep on Tuesday. "We have some good players, and I'm confident we'll do all right."
The first-year coach knows his program has a tough task competing with Bloomfield, but said his players are ready for that challenge.
"Bloomfield is at the top and that's who we're gunning for," Baer said. "We want to do well in the district and improve our (state) seeding."
Baer said he expects pitching to be the strength of his team.
"I think we're deep in pitching. We have five or six guys with experience," he said. "We're set to go. We had about 30 kids come out and will have a full JV schedule for the first time in about 10 years. We're excited for the season."
Navajo Prep head coach Bobby Byrd could not be reached for comment by press time.Joshua Perry can be reached at email@example.com; 505-564-4577. Follow him on Twitter @jperrysuu.