Green but good: Inexperienced Desert Academy shows plenty of promise

April 10, 2019

Madison Menapeace made a catch.

It might not sound like a big deal, but for the eighth grade right fielder for the first-year Desert Academy baseball program, it meant everything in the moment Tuesday afternoon. So, she lost herself in it, jumping into the air in celebration as if she had caught the last out of a championship game.

“I don’t think I’ve ever caught a pop fly in a game — ever,” Menapeace said. “So, it made me real excited, and then I was like, ‘Oh wait, I’m still in the game. Somebody’s on base.’ ”

And it was only the first out of the fourth inning in a nondistrict game against Peñasco, and Panthers center fielder Jerome Lopez took advantage of the situation to advance to third base on the out. In the end, Menapeace’s momentary lapse was merely a footnote, as the Wildcats recorded yet another first of their inaugural season in a 10-0 win at the Municipal Recreation Complex.

It was the first mercy-rule win for the program, as Cameron Motola scored the 10th and game-ending run when Peñasco pitcher David Lucero overran James Utton’s dribbler in front of the plate with the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the frame.

Motola left his imprint on the game, as well as on the program’s inception. The freshman pitched 51/3 innings of shutout baseball, striking out 10 batters before giving way to one of the eight eighth graders on the team, Tiger Romero. He also 1 for 2 with an RBI double and the game-winning run as Desert Academy (3-5-1) manufactured four runs in the sixth using six consecutive walks, two stolen bases, two wild pitches and two Panthers errors.

It was Motola’s parents who were the driving forces behind the school’s creation of a baseball program last year.

“They did not have a team and I found that a problem,” Motola said.

So, they went to Jonathan Toya, who had been an assistant at several programs in Santa Fe and was a part of the club program at the E&G Baseball Academy. He tried to create a varsity team for the 2018 season, but could not get enough eligible high school participants to go around the four eighth graders who wanted to play.

All that did was delay the inevitable, knowing that a strong group of upcoming eighth graders were just a year away.

“I said, ‘Let’s try and build a program from the ground up,’ and started a middle school program [last year],” Toya said.

The biggest challenge for Toya, though, is that some of the players on the team are literally learning the game on the run. About half of the 14-player roster came into the season with some baseball experience. The rest had little to no experience with the game.

Menapeace said she hadn’t played the game since she was a little kid, focusing more on volleyball. She is still learning some of the basics of the game while also understanding some of the more subtle points of the game.

Take the 10-run mercy rule for example. It was completely new to her that a game could end after 41/2 innings if one of the teams had a 10-run lead.

“My parents were like, ‘If you beat them [by 10 runs], will they give you the mercy rule?’ ” Menapeace said. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I mean, in volleyball, you play until you win [three games].”

Toya said it takes a lot of patience in teaching the players the fundamentals of the game.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Toya said. “I’ve coached 4-year-olds who have never played the game before to catch a ball. I have a good assistant coach who can help with the veteran guys and I can go to the younger guys and get them up to par with what we’re trying to do.”

The best sign that the system is working can be seen in the bottom of the order. Mason Moore, who has yet to collect a hit this season, contributed with a pair of walks and scored a run during the four-run first inning that broke open the scoring.

Ian Hernandez-Rojas was 0-for-2 with a walk hitting out the ninth spot in the lineup, but he pulled a ball to left field and grounded out to shortstop. Toya said the fact that the batters in the bottom half of the lineup are putting the ball in play or drawing walks shows significant improvement from the beginning of the year.

Having access to the hitting cages at E&G Academy has benefitted the players, as up to five players can take swings against pitching machines or live pitching.

“It’s huge,” Toya said. “Even slow rollers, where they have to field the ball and throw the guy out, are good, instead of strikeouts where they just throw the ball around the infield. That was the thing I harped on with the bottom of the lineup while we were in Santa Rosa [over the weekend for a tournament] — put the ball in play.”

Motola said the bottom of the lineup’s improvement takes some pressure off of the top half, as it can help manufacture runs and keep momentum going for the Wildcats.

“We want to get around the lineup as many times as we can,” Motola said. “When they put the ball in play, you can through the bottom of the lineup fast. Then there are not a whole of innings where there are a lot of runs, then we go 1-2-3 and the next inning is 1-2-3.

“They’ve improved a lot.”

How much? When the two teams played to open Desert Academy’s season exactly two weeks ago (March 26), they played to an 8-all tie that ended because of darkness.

This time, darkness didn’t have a chance.