A batter crosses first base well ahead of a throw during bunting practice, always important to Murphy and his staff.
The day after the AFC and NFC championship games, and 13 days before Super Bowl LVII was played, Rio Rancho High School baseball coach Ron Murphy was seated on his Gator, watching his ballplayers get timed in sprints, two at a time.
There was more to follow: playing catch to warm up, infield and outfield practice, bunting, batting practice, base-running and more.
Despite it being Jan. 30, the afternoon workout was under sunny skies with a slight breeze, and a bearable temperature in the upper 40s. Even if there had been inclement weather, Murphy wouldn’t have cared – there are other ways, such as using the indoor batting cage, to get his players amped for 2023.
Although he’s done chasing milestones for a while – career victory 582 came in 2021, making him the state’s all-time winningest baseball coach, and victory 600 in ’22 are in the books, with victory 500 with the Rams a mere six wins away – there’s something else every baseball coach takes aim at: a state championship.
The Rams won twice at the Socorro Indepenedent School District tournament last week in El Paso; they lost just once and tied two other games, which had time limits.
RRHS has its home opener Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. when La Cueva visits.
Coincidentally, the Rams’ three state titles were won in odd years – 2007, ’09 and ’13 – and this is an odd year, too.
Yes, it could happen, just like it should have in 2021, when his team went cold at the plate. And although last year was an even year, nobody could have predicted the number of experienced players down with the flu at the state playoffs, including one player so sick before the first pitch that he hurled – he wasn’t a pitcher – and was sent home. And a 24-5 record is nothing to sneeze at.
“Our program’s loaded,” Murphy said. “If I based my real retirement, when I don’t come back, on when we’re gonna have a down year of athletes, I can never retire.
“Our JV’s gonna be good, our C team is gonna be good. We already know our sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, because of all the camps we run,” he said. “We’re never gonna have a down year – we’re gonna have a year where we’re gonna be right there to have a chance at it all at the end of the year.”
New for 2023
High schools across the U.S. will be using aluminum bats instead of wood bats, as in previous years, starting this season.
These bats are lighter, have larger barrels and thus larger “sweet spots,” hit the balls farther and last longer. Wood bats are still used in the majors, because MLB wants its games based on ability, not technology.
What does Murphy think of that?
“The difference, I think, is a lot of teams in the state will take away their ‘small ball’ game and swing a lot more. … They felt like, with the wood, they had to really produce one run any way they could. Now, people will rely more on the big hit.”
“We still have a veteran group,” Murphy said. “Almost every one of our players that will start this year got some type of varsity time last year, almost every position.
“If our pitching can be as good as they can be, we have a shot at state,” he said. “Seth (Lee) and Kai (Fitak) hit 90 – we’ve never had two 90-guys ever. (Dylan) Archuleta’s an 88, 87 guy. Now, if they can throw strikes, we’ll see. As of right now, I would say Seth’s our ace – we’d like to keep Kai at third as much as possible, use him a little in relief. And our three under-class outfielders can all pitch. (Casen) Savage is a hell of a pitcher; we haven’t had time to get him on the mound yet.
“(And) we’ve got a couple lefties coming up. They’re not gonna be a major bonus on the mound this year, but they’re gonna be good.”
There are a few intangibles, Murphy said.
“The strength of this time – and there’s no doubt in my mind – is it’s a pretty good group of kids that really, really enjoy each other, both on the field and off. Nobody gets in trouble on this team – I don’t get emails from teachers. They’re all here early for practice. They do all the little things good already, and they’ve played together for many years,” he said. “Last year’s (chemistry) was good; this year’s better, one of the best, I’d say.”
Also among the veterans are first baseman Alex Pacheco, pitchers Jason Parker, Nick DiGregorio and Jason Gordon, outfielder Noah Braunschweiger and catcher Josh Boyer.
“I think we’re really deep on the mound, a lot of choices there,” Murphy said.
“Dino” Ellison, a freshman who saw brief action in 2022, could start in the outfield, Murphy said, and Niko Alcala.
“We have one of the toughest schedules – ever – this year,” Murphy said. “We got La Cueva on our schedule this year; we have Farmington, Piedra Vista.. We’re not going to go anywhere near undefeated, or anything like that. We’re gonna play teams that challenge us in El Paso and here, but we’ll be battle-tested before the state playoffs.”
District 1-5A “doesn’t have a weak team in it,” Murphy said, with coach Robert Puentes, a former assistant for Murphy, working hard to revive what had been an inept Cibola program, Atrisco Heritage Academy getting a new coach and improving its facility, perennial power Volcano Vista and city foe Cleveland.
New drill has Murphy excited
At one of two national prep baseball coaches conventions Murphy has been at since last season ended with the loss to Sandia, he brought back a drill in which every batter steps into the box with a 0-2 count – “a drill that I love, (and) will make us better offensively and defensively.
“Our pitchers have the most trouble (giving up hits) when the count is 0-2/ And our hitters struggle putting the ball in play with 0-2. So the whole game is played live and we’re gonna incorporate that – and you don’t have to throw a lot, because the count’s 0-2, so you’re saving the pitchers’ arms. That’s one of the best drills we picked up, by far, because those were the biggest weaknesses.”
After they return from El Paso, the Rams have back-to-back home games: La Cueva visits Feb. 28 for a 3:30 contest, and Piedra Vista is here March 4 at noon.
‘First’ game has already been played
On Feb. 9, a college game between Fort Hays College in Colorado and New Mexico Highlands University was snowed out, so the teams asked Murphy if they could play here.
Of course, he said yes.
“! Love sharing our facility with college teams,” he said, and this wasn’t the first time that’s been done, just the first time in 2023. The NMHU Cowboys won the game, 5-3.