KIRTLAND — Last season, the Kirtland Central softball team showed it can get hot and compete with anyone in the state.
At the state tourney last season, the Lady Broncos, seeded eighth, upset No. 2 Portales and No. 4 Bloomfield to become one of the final four teams remaining in the tournament before being eliminated by runner-up Hope Christian to end the season.
KC moves up to 5A this season, making a run like last season's a more difficult task. But the Lady Broncos are in a perfect position to surprise the state again in 2017. They lost only three seniors from last year's squad and return their top seven leaders in runs batted in and eight of nine who registered at least 20 hits in 2016.
"I really think all the pieces to the puzzle are there, and we should be fine. But obviously, the team still needs to mesh," KC coach Cody Gilmore said. "And they've got to have fun. That's the biggest thing I've seen so far this year. It is a game. I don't want them to look at it as a job. As long as they're having fun, I think we'll be OK."
The offensive power is there for KC to make an impression in 5A, and the defense won't be far behind.
The Lady Broncos boasted an .893 fielding percentage last season and return their top pitcher in senior Shiloh Lewis to help take some of the pressure off the defense.
"She's got an array of pitches. She has a good fastball, curveball, riseball and a changeup. Every pitch, when they're working, they're good," Gilmore said. "She still has work to do and will continue to get better between now and the district schedule."
Lewis finished last season with a 10-2 record while pitching 109 innings, striking out 118 batters against 35 walks.
"At first, it was a little overwhelming," Lewis said of being the first option in the circle, "because we didn't have many experienced pitchers. A lot of the pitchers were new to pitching, and I had to step up. It was just something I had to do."
Her experience and leadership will be needed this season as she's currently the only pitcher in the rotation with meaningful varsity experience.
After a decent start to the season, going 2-1 and giving up seven earned runs in 17 innings, Lewis got beat up by Valencia Tuesday in Los Lunas, giving up 17 hits and 10 earned runs in a 12-5 loss.
Lewis said the entire trip to Los Lunas and the game felt rushed. The team got to the field later than planned, and the Lady Broncos had to hurry through the warmup process, which threw off the team's focus and intensity.
After the loss Tuesday, Gilmore said the issue can easily be fixed by better planning. And while it wasn't an ideal situation for the team to go through, it showed the Lady Broncos how important preparation can be.
"When we get to a game, we need to be more focused on the game," Lewis said. "We need that full warmup so we can do our best."
Karl Schneider is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648.