Mike Powers|News-Bulletin Photo
The Valencia Jaguars go through conditioning drills for the soccer season

Valencia High School

The pains of the pandemic might not be over with it yet, but the boys’ soccer team at Valencia High School may be emerging stronger and more united.

That is the belief of head coach Eric Gutierrez, who has been in charge of the Jaguar program for a decade.

“We’ve been able to keep a core of about 15 kids; the freshmen are now seniors, the eighth-graders are now juniors,” Gutierrez said.

This group of players didn’t have the benefit of working their way through the system.

“They were thrown in right away with the big kids,” the coach said. “It hurt them for a good two years but this year you can see they have finally come into their own.”

The defense is the most experienced unit for the Jaguars. Senior midfielder Joan Garcia has strong praise for the backline, which is a senior dominated lineup.

“No one gets passed — no one,” Garcia said.

Gutierrez says the VHS defense, led by junior Domonic Villella, understands the game very well, but the Jaguars will need the positions up the field to improve.

Junior midfielder Kyle Mankins believes that will happen.

“We have a better team than last year for sure,” Mankins said. “We have better chemistry together and we have better skills.”

The Jaguars are coming off a 6-10-1 season, but there is a strong belief that better things are ahead this year. Gutierrez says he won’t get into predictions but “we have the capabilities of going very far” in the state tournament.

Garcia, playing his last season at Valencia, agrees.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t,” Garcia said. “We work hard on the field. We’re talented. We’re not afraid.”

Valencia has played two games: a 3-2 double overtime loss at Del Norte, and a 2-0 loss at home to Las Cruces High School.

The Jaguars play in District 5-4A with Belen, Highland, Grants and St. Pius X.

Mike Powers|News-Bulletin Photo
The Belen Eagles are looking to make strides under a new head boys soccer coach

Belen High School

New coach. New season. New players, and perhaps renewed optimism for the Belen High School boys’ soccer team.

Coach Edgar Lopez is in his first year leading the Eagles, who were 5-14-1 last season. Lopez is still getting acquainted with the players but he has seen positive signs.

“So far, we have noticed that they are very good athletes and very dedicated,” Lopez said.

About 20 student-athletes are out for the team, which is more than last year but not enough to field a junior varsity squad. Still, Lopez says he is pleased with the Eagles’ nucleus, especially the defense with senior co-captain Vincent Lares and junior Diego Martinez among the standouts.

“We have a lot of veterans back there,” Martinez said about the defense. “We pass the ball well down there, communicate well, with good chemistry.”

Junior midfielder Gerardo Molina Jr. sees the same thing.

“The defensive line is really good because we have the speed and toughness back there,” Molina Jr. said.

Meshing together as quickly as possible is important, especially with a first year coach and a number of new players. Midfielder Molina Jr. admits it has been a challenge.

“I think we can make it to state if we work hard enough and work together,” Molina Jr. said.

Teammate Martinez has a similar outlook.

“We have a lot of speed,” Martinez said. “We have a lot of young guys but they are athletic and fast. That will help.”

Coach Lopez is trying to establish a foundation for the future.

“We want to make soccer an enjoyable and challenging experience with a focus on skill development,” Lopez said.

He wants to create a positive environment with academics first while still being competitive.

“I have high expectations for the team,” the coach said.

The Eagles open the season at home Thursday, Aug. 25, against Moriarty.

BHS is in District 5-4A with Valencia, St. Pius X, Grants and Highland.

Mike Powers|News-Bulletin Photo
A district title is one of the goals for the Los Lunas boys soccer team

Los Lunas High School

The echoes of the whooping and hollering after winning the boys 4A state soccer championship in 2019 may have faded, but the joy still lingers in the hearts of the Los Lunas players and coaches.

Eraclio Chavez, in his fifth year as head coach, along with now-seniors Anthony Griego and Isaac Garcia, were there to help lift the blue trophy.

After a 5-11 mark last season, the Tigers feel rejuvenated. Coach Chavez believes the program is “back in the winning mode,” and the young players who took their lumps recently are “good to go.”

Chavez hesitates to make predictions, but “We can be really good,” he said.  “We’re looking to compete for a district title.”

“Honestly, we have a lot of potential,” said Senior captain Ruben Morales. “Our players have a lot of fire in them that we didn’t have last year.”

“If we just have fun and play our best, I think we can really make it far,” Morales added.

To take advantage of the Tigers’ individual skills, Coach Chavez is making adjustments.

“We’re going to play to our strength on the wings. We’re going to switch up our formation to do that.”

The coach does wish he had one more player on top. Instead the Tigers will use a midfielder to help with the attack, which Chavez admits can be “tricky.”

Being a part of the LLHS soccer program is a point of pride for those who have worked their way up.

“The program is one of the best,” Morales, the defender, said. “I wasn’t good when I started but I learned by working and watching others.”

And senior Isaac Garcia, who played in that title game three years ago, has some advice.

“Keep an eye out for us,” Garcia said.

The Tigers opened the season with a 1-1 overtime tie at Alamogordo. Los Lunas is in district 5-5A with Santa Fe, Manzano, Capital, Rio Grande and Albuquerque High.

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Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.