Going into the 2022 season, his first as a high-school varsity baseball head coach, Duke Baker knew multiple primary pieces to Ignacio’s puzzle were already in place. He also knew there were a few needing finessing to create the desired fit.
But there was one completely missing, one upon which any number of skippers would have constructed their lineups.
And with senior Gabe Tucson concentrating this spring on honing his college-caliber hoop game, Baker plus assistants Isiah Valdez and Lawrence Toledo, Sr., were left lacking a mound ace as well as – when Tucson wasn’t pitching – a first baseman.
Confident in junior Eppie Quintana’s right arm to replace Tucson’s left as IHS’ No. 1 option on the bump, the Bobcats’ brain trust still needed an able glove at the corner … and early on, the coaches found one.
One which just recently was named First Team All-San Juan Basin League.
“Last year he … was the bullpen catcher; that’s all he played,” Baker said, of Rylan Maez. “Well, they put him in the outfield, I think he said – one game … but we moved him to first at the beginning of the year and he did amazing for us.”
“He was (going to be in the) outfield, but … he went from that to being one of the best basemen in the league. He’s come a long ways from where he started; Ryalan’s a monster at first…can pick it like no other.”
“You’ve got to play with what you’ve got,” said Maez, who solidified Ignacio’s right side with second baseman/brother Marcus. “That’s about it.”
“Our defense was lock-down,” Baker said. “Marcus and Rylan, those boys are stepping up … rising to the occasion.”
Also named First Team All-League as infielders were Nucla sophomore Steele Arnold and Dove Creek freshman Sheldon Gardner. Sophomore teammate Gage Buffington received the only Second Team nod, while IHS shortstop Jacob Gallegos earned not only a First Team selection but also SJBL Player-of-the-Year.
“That kid … he’s amazing. Plays great defense, is a team player and a great captain,” stated Baker. “And he’s young! It’s well-deserved, for sure. Jake’s always there, and Eppie and Phillip – those boys are always on it.”
Eppie Quintana was voted First Team All-SJBL as a pitcher, while sophomore brother Phillip Quintana received Second Team as a catcher for his work behind the plate, though his innings dealt as the Bobcats’ No. 2 pitcher (with sibling Eppie usually receiving) proved just as vital in helping Ignacio win the league title and ultimately reach the 32-team CHSAA Class 2A State Tournament’s ‘Sweet 16’ stage, when the ’Cats fell 6-1 at Wiggins in the Region VIII championship.
WHS then lost the Quadrant I finale 16-1 to top-seeded Limon, which went on to complete an undefeated season by clipping Colorado Springs St. Mary’s 3-2 in the Saturday, June 4, grand finale at CSU-Pueblo’s Rawlings Field.
Building upon a State-winning performance in pandemic-abbreviated 2021, the Badgers went 26-0 overall – giving LHS 46 straight wins since an extra-innings loss to Rye in 2019’s opening Round-of-16 – in ’22; second place SMHS finished 19-9.
NHS seniors Brayden Magallon and Josh Flint were named First and Second Team All-SJBL, respectively, as pitchers, while DCHS sophomore Hunter Daves also was chosen Second Team All-League. First Team catcher went to Nucla senior Jarret Sinks; Dove Creek junior Kendall Gardner copped Honorable Mention status.
Though pressed into playing third base late in the season, IHS sophomore Devante Montoya manned centerfield for the majority of it and was a certain First Team All-League pick amongst the loop’s fly-chasers. Also honored as such were DCHS senior Ryan Jarmon and NHS senior Josh Alexander, while Mustang senior Gage Owen received Second Team praise.
Nucla senior Carson Gardner earned First Team All-SJBL as a designated hitter, while Dove Creek junior Cole Taber was a First Team utility-player pick with Flint earning an Honorable Mention nod.
Despite driving Ignacio (15-8, 4-2 SJBL) to ten more victories than the program managed last year, SJBL Coach-of-the-Year went to NHS’ Randy Gabriel rather than Baker. And though Baker was nonplussed, he nonetheless expressed congratulations.
“His team, they’re an amazing group,” said Baker. “And Randy’s an amazing coach; I love the guy. For the, you know, (Class 1A) Playoffs I wished him good luck and he wished me good luck, told me what a good team we have.”
“And look at what they accomplished!” he continued. “As a team we did things people never thought we could.”
Stunned 14-4 by, ironically, Dove Creek in the 1A-District 1 championship, Gabriel’s Mustangs soon made amends by eliminating Trent Daves’ Bulldogs 13-3 in the quarterfinals of the 16-team State bracket. DCHS (2-4 San Juan Basin) ended up 12-10 overall, while NHS (3-3 SJBL) finished 15-8 after then losing 18-0 to top-seeded Merino in four innings of semifinals action.
The Rams then completed their school’s maiden title-winning season edging 6-seed Holly, 4 to 3, in ten innings at Keli McGregor Field at Coca-Cola All-Star Park in Lakewood. MHS ended up 24-2 overall in 2022; the Wildcats slipped to 20-4.