The Rio Rancho Rams celebrate after the big win, showing off the blue trophy and 5A bracket. (Herron photo)
ALBUQUERQUE – Sixth-seeded Centennial scored the game’s first four runs and the last two Saturday afternoon at Santa Ana Star Field, but it was the nine runs scored by Rio Rancho between those bursts that gave the No. 1 Rams the state championship.
It’s the Rams’ fourth state title in their 25 seasons of existence, and oddly, all four have been claimed in odd years: 2007, ’09, ’13 and now 2023. The team lost its other two championship games in even years, 2010 and ’16.
The victory was the Rams’ 25th in their last 26 ballgames, and the second time they’d won 27 games in a season, having gone 27-3 in 2010, when they were the 2 seed and lost the championship game to La Cueva at Isotopes Park.
It gave the District 1-5A champs their fourth tournament title of the season: They won a Southern New Mexico crown in Las Cruces, the APS Metro Championship and their own Sal Puentes Rio Rancho Tournament. Coming back from their annual season opening in El Paso, where they went 2-1-2, the Rams (27-2-2) lost but once, 3-2 to visiting Volcano Vista on April 28, which ended a 20-game win streak.
Rio Rancho 9, Centennial 6: Ace Seth Lee didn’t have his best stuff in the showdown with the Hawks (26-5), as he walked the first two batters he faced, gave up a triple and a rare, costly error by right fielder Sean Vigil helped Centennial grab a 4-0 lead before it recorded an out.
Down 4-0 as they came to the plate for the first time, the Rams got a leadoff bunt single by Casen Savage, Kai Fitak was hit by a pitch and Vascon Smith doubled home Savage. Vigil got an infield single that plated Fitak and Dean Ellison walked. Dylan Archuleta then knotted the game at with a two-run single to center.
The Rams took the lead to keep with two-out doubles by Niko Alcala and Smith in the second; they made it 6-4 with a solo run in the fourth, again after there were two outs, on another two-bagger by Alcala and an RBI single by Fitak.
“Our team was big believers that we could score with two outs and nobody on,” coach Ron Murphy said.
Ryan Lewis relieved Lee (8-0) and kept the Hawks off the scoreboard.
The Rams added three insurance runs in their half of the sixth. Dylan Tinker started the rally with a one-out single and continued to third on an error. Savage drove him home with a single, Alcala was hit by a pitch and Fitak concluded the Rams’ scoring for the season with a triple. He was soon erased when he tried to sneak home when a pitch eluded the Hawks’ catcher.
Savage, who earned a save in Friday’s semifinal victory, claimed another save, although it wasn’t as easy.
He struck out the first batter in the seventh before giving up a pair of runs, ultimately striking out the side and preserving the win.
Rio Rancho 6, Piedra Vista 5: Starting pitcher Kai Fitak spotted the No. 12 Panthers a 2-0 lead, and again the Rams didn’t seem to notice, plating four runs in their half of the first – after two were down — and never trailing again.
Smith had an RBI single and Archuleta had a two-run double as RRHS took a 4-2 lead.
Piedra Vista, outhitting the Rams 8-7 by game’s end, added solo runs in the second and third, and the game remained tied until the fifth.
Again with two down, Alcala singled to center and Fitak walked. Smith then doubled home both for a 6-4 lead.
PVHS had been unable to score off reliever Archuleta (8-0) in the fifth and sixth, but got their seventh-inning leadoff man aboard with a single. Savage came to the mound and gave up an RBI-triple and walked a Panther before striking out three of the next four batters he faced.
That nail-biter sent the Rams into the championship game vs. Centennial, which beat Sandia 11-1 in five innings in the other semifinal.
The Rams also beat the Panthers 11-9 in a March 2 meeting at RRHS.
Rio Rancho 14, Rio Grande 0: Lee, Lewis and Jason Parker combined on this five-inning, two-hit quarterfinal win Thursday, advancing the Rams into the “final four” for the 11th time in school history.
The Rams batted around in the first two innings, taking a 5-0 lead after the first and 11-0 after the second.
Savage hit the first pitch of the bottom of the first over the fence at the new Jennifer Riordan Spark Kindness Sports Complex and Archuleta soon made it 5-0, as his bases-loaded fly ball to right field was lost in the sun and he and three teammates scored.
In the second inning, Savage led off with a single. Alcala and Fitak followed with walks to load the bases, and Smith was hit by a pitch, forcing Savage home and keeping the sacks loaded – and sending Ravens (20-10) lefty Isaiah Gutierrez off the mound.
Vigil singled home two runs and Ellison did likewise, sending the first reliever to the dugout.
Archuleta singled home a run, Josh Boyer drove another run in on a fielder’s choice and Tinker’s fielder’s choice made it 11-0.
Lee was done, working two innings and giving up one hit and fanning four. Lewis then went six up, six down for the third and fourth innings; Parker gave up a harmless one-out double and quickly got the next two hitters.
Alcala led off the third with a double and Smith socked a two-run homer to make it 13-0.
The Rams concluded the rout with an unearned run in the fourth, on a Boyer double and an RBI single by Fitak.
“It’s very rewarding,” RRHS coach Ron Murphy said. “Our kids came out we got some runs early and that was key. We got to play a lot of people and, yeah, it was a good day.”
Extra innings: For the three games played last week, Savage, Alcala, Fitak, Smith and Archuleta had hits in every game, combing to go 23 for 44 (.523).
… The Rams dominated the All-District 1-5A first and second teams. Murphy was the Coach of the Year, and Smith shared Player of the Year honors with Volcano Vista’s Regan Hall. Ellison, Smith, Fitak, Boyer, Savage, Lee and Archuleta (the latter two as pitchers) were first-teamers at their usual positions. Outfielders Vigil and Tinker, plus Fitak as a pitcher, were named to the second team. Alcala and pitcher Jason Parker received honorable mention.
… Cleveland High School’s Anthony Del Angel, an outfielder, and pitcher Austin Barela were on the All-District first team. Barela, at first base, shortstop Jarren Villa and outfielder Chase Tyler were named to the second team, along with Gabe Nelson as a utility player. Catcher Owen Bishop and outfielder Brandon Hennessy were honorable mention selections for the Storm.