Los Lunas High School baseball coach Steve Contreras was picked as District 3-5A coach of the year, and 10 of his players earned all-district honors, including three first-team selections.
Contreras, in his third year as head coach, led the Tigers to an 11-1 record in district play, 19-6 overall, and Los Lunas’ first appearance in a state championship game since 1983. The Tigers finished as state runners-up, losing the championship game to Carlsbad, 8-1, a week ago.
Contreras shrugged off the honor as a personal achievement. “I think it goes for the whole staff,” he said. The coach was assisted this year by Andrew Sais, Bobby Hernandez, Eliseo Aguirre and Pasquel Armijo.
Contreras also gave credit to his players for the team’s success this season. It was a team dripping with talent.
Seniors Carlos Castillo and Josh Hernandez and junior Christain Rael were named to the first team. Seniors James Alarcon and Travis Ferrel and junior Brian Holmes were selected to the second team. And senior J.D. Garcia, junior Nathan Romero and sophomores Xavier Alverado and Larry Sutherland earned honorable mention.
Voting was conducted by district coaches.
Castillo and Hernandez were the team leaders, and both were picked to the first team at two positions — Castillo as a catcher and pitcher and Hernandez as a shortstop and pitcher. Both were also selected to represent Los Lunas in the North-South All-Star Series to be played June 7-8 at Las Cruces’ Apodoca Park.
Castillo was named the district’s top catcher for the second year in a row. “In my opinion, he was the best catcher in the state,” Contreras said. “As a catcher, that’s like the quarterback in football. He has excellent leadership abilities and controls the game from his position.”
Aside from his excellent defensive skills, Castillo was also a superb offensive player. “For a big guy and a catcher, he’s got that combination of average and power,” the coach said of the Tigers’ cleanup hitter.
Castillo batted .541 during the regular season and led the team with eight home runs and 40 RBIs.
From the mound, Castillo posted a 6-0 record and 2.60 ERA during the regular season. He struck out 45 batters in 32 1/3 innings pitched. “Carlos has a good curve and splitter. He moved the ball around the zone, hit spots and changed speeds. He knew how to pitch to a batter’s weaknesses,” Contreras said.
Hernandez led the state in both batting and pitching. After hitting .542 last season, Hernandez upped his average to .645 this year. He scored nearly 25 percent of the Tigers runs (41 of 405), clobbered six home runs and drove in 32.
“He’s always a tough out,” Contreras said of Hernandez, who batted in the third slot this season after serving as the Tigers’ leadoff man a year ago. “It starts with model mechanics. He does all the right things. He puts the ball in play and doesn’t strike out too often. And he hits the ball hard.”
As a pitcher, Hernandez posted an 8-1 record and 0.96 ERA during the season. Including the playoffs, he struck out 101 batters in 70 1/3 innings.
“He had a 90 mile per hour fastball and you don’t see that too often at the high school level,” Contreras said. “Sometimes with a power pitcher like that, they’ll rely on that one pitch. But Josh also had an excellent curve and excellent split finger, which he used as a change-up.”
The coach also considered Hernandez one of the state’s best defensive shortstops. “He’s got an above average arm, excellent footwork, good quickness and range,” he said.
Hernandez has signed to play baseball at El Paso Community College next year, but those plans could change depending on how he high goes in the Major League Baseball’s June draft. Sooner or later, Hernandez will probably get his chance to play pro ball.
“He’s an exceptional ballplayer. I’d put him as one of the top players, if not the top player, in the state. He’ll be playing at the next level for sure,” his coach said.
Though Hernandez was considered the team’s star player, one wouldn’t know it by talking to him. “He didn’t let it go to his head,” Contreras said. “He’s kind of a quiet guy. He just liked being a part of the team.”
Rael made the all-district team as an outfielder. He played left field and was the Tigers’ leadoff hitter, batting at a .394 clip during the season.
“He also was a tough out. His strength is he very rarely will strike out,” Contreras said of Rael, who struck out just five times in 84 at bats. “He has a good eye and uses the whole field. He sprays the ball from foul pole to pole, and when he gets the right pitch, he can hit with power.”
As for Los Lunas’ second teamers, Alarcon batted .417, hit a pair of homers and was third on the team in RBIs with 33. The Tiger first baseman said he has an offer to play at New Mexico Military Institute in the fall, but he’s unsure whether he’ll accept.
Ferrel, a center fielder, batted .339 this season. Batting at the bottom of the order, Ferrel possessed a good eye for the strike zone. He was third on the team in walks with 11 and had an on base percentage of .455.
Holmes, the Tigers’ right fielder, batted .333 this season. He socked three home runs and accounted for 16 RBIs.