Young team banking on help from Texas, Arizona high schoolers
FARMINGTON — An annual contender to host the Connie Mack World Series, Naa'taanii will field a younger than usual team this year.
Still, longtime coach Dineh Benally's hopes are as high as always.
"We got some good players that we picked up, some good imports," Benally said. "When they all get here, I think we'll be good. Our goal is still to get to the Connie Mack World Series. Nothing changes."
Naa'taanii, whose roster includes only two recent high school graduates, made it last year to the semifinals, where the team was bounced by the eventual tourney champion 4C-ClubSox.
Former Shiprock players Arjay Miller and Cameron Phillips are the two Naa'taanii players who graduated last month. And they are also the only two members to return to the club from last year.
As usual, most of the players Benally will send to the field are from Shiprock and Kirtland. Kirtland Central sophomores Dionte Yazzie and Cadan Flack should see regular playing time, as should Shiprock sophomore Mattheu Duncan.
To compensate for what some of his local players lack in experience, Benally has collected 10 players from Texas and Arizona, including two high school seniors from El Paso, Texas, who the coach expects to anchor his pitching staff, as well as the middle of his batting order.
Nick Rocha, of Ysleta High School in Texas, accounted for both of his high school team's home runs last season. He'll hit in the middle of the order and do a lot of pitching for Naa'taanii. The same goes for Horizon High School senior Sergio Castro.
Rocha and Castro share a lot of common goals this summer, and one of those is to see how they stack up against the stiff competition of the Southwest.
"Every pitcher out in El Paso thought they were the best, and some were good, but I know the competition out here will be better," Castro said. "It'll be good to see how I fit into that."
While other teams have as many as 10 games under their belts, Naa'taanii didn't begin its City League schedule until today. But Benally's team has been playing together for weeks in area tournaments, which has given his players a boost in confidence.
"I think we can win it all," Rocha said. "In some of our previous tournaments, we've beaten good teams, even though we've never really played together until now."
In Naataanii's first City League game, it was trounced 20-3 by Strike Zone, but Benally isn't phased. He threw Duncan, a 15-year-old, out to the mound with development in mind. Benally said that's part of his summer-long plan as Naa'taanii gets going in the City League.
"He is going to be a star for Naa'taanii. He's one of the kids that's going to be around for a while," Benally said of Duncan. "I put him out there so he could see some of the top competition. I'd rather do it now than later, when we're trying to get into the tournament."
Tyler Quinn, who was second in runs and RBI last season for his high school team in Williams Field, Ariz., will play center field and hit at the top of the order for Naa'taanii, a team he has history with.
"My older brother used to play for the team, so I have great love for the team and great love for the coaching," he said.
Quinn said today's lopsided loss didn't discourage his teammates and him, and he doesn't believe there's a lot that will get them down this summer as Naa'taanii tries to host the CMWS for the first time in its 15-year history.
"We don't let a lot get to us. This is a laid-back team, and it's really stress-free," Quinn said. "We keep pushing through and keep going, no matter what."
Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.