The memory of how it all unraveled still lingers for the Pueblo West baseball team.
And, naturally, it stung for a long time.
The Cyclones had done just about everything to put themselves in position to take home the Class 4A crown coming down the closing stretch of the 2016 season.
They began clicking at the right moment, rattling off 16 wins over the 17 games leading up to the state championship finale against a Valor Christian squad that needed to win not once, but twice, to flip the script on what appeared to be inevitable.
That’s why it’s not easily forgotten, as Pueblo West is still searching for its first baseball title in school history.
“It left a bitter taste in our mouth,” senior pitcher RJ Dabovich said. “We were that close, one win away from a (championship) ring. That’s been our main motivation throughout the offseason.”
Rather than letting themselves dwell on what almost was, this year’s team has turned it into firing power entering their 2017 campaign, which begins Saturday at Lewis-Palmer.
“It’s definitely something that has stuck with us, and we’re using that to work harder and get better,” senior outfielder Ian Garcia said. “Everyone that was there is just that much hungrier to get back there and try to win it this year.”
Seven players from last year’s team were lost to graduation. The Cyclones did, however, retain much of their offensive production that led to their success a year ago.
Ian Garcia and his twin brother, Alan, are expected to play key offensive roles on this year’s sophomore-heavy team, according to 13th-year coach Dan Sanchez. They combined for 65 hits and 34 RBIs in 2016.
“We’ve been working to improve our fundamentals, really focusing on the little things that lost us that last game,” said Alan Garcia, a Dodge City Community College signee along with his brother. “We’re ready to redeem ourselves.”
Dabovich, who signed to Central Arizona College in January, is expected to lead the Cyclones on the pitching mound. The right-hander recorded 27 strikeouts and had two saves among a senior-led rotation last season.
“I’m excited because we’re about as athletic as we’ve ever been,” Sanchez said. “We were able to do some really good things last year and I fully expect us to be in the hunt again this year.”
Pueblo West came in at No. 3 in the preseason CHSAANow.com baseball rankings, released on Monday. Valor Christian was No. 1 and Mountain View sits No. 2.
The Eagles graduated 14 players while the Mountain Lions had only three seniors. Valor Christian will also be in its first season under new coach Brian Bonn.
Cherokee Trail is also one of three defending champions to come in at No. 1 of their respective classes in the preseason poll. Returning seniors Conner Nantkes, Nick Perez, Eric Cox and Michael Morris accounted for more than half of the Cougars’ 283 hits in 2016.
Cherry Creek came in at No. 2 and will face Cherokee Trail on April 6. Headlining the Bruins’ list of returners is junior Tanner O’Tremba, who received All-American honors last season. No. 3 Rocky Mountain, the 2016 runner-up, will meet Cherokee Trail in a title-game rematch on March 24 during the regular season.
Knocked out in the semifinals last season, University is now back as the top-ranked team in 3A. The Bulldogs return seniors Paul Medina and Beau Hawley, who led the team in hits in 2016, as well as leading pitcher Cameron Multer, now a junior.
Defending champion Faith Christian is No. 2 in the season’s first rankings. The Eagles graduated seven seniors from a year ago, including top hitter and 3A player of the year Austin Stone, who was named to the MaxPreps small schools All-American team.
Top-ranked Paonia suffered only one defeat throughout the 2016 regular season. Despite being upset in the semifinals, the Eagles will return nearly their entire stately team from a year ago with the exception of two players.
Defending champion Dawson is ranked No. 2. The Mustangs lost six seniors from their title-winning squad.
Defending champion Holly was the only team in the preseason rankings to receive a unanimous vote for No. 1, while Eads and runner-up Fleming were voted Nos. 2 and 3, respectively.
The Wildcats, who return all but one player from their championship team, will play the Eagles on the road April 28 in the regular-season finale.