DENVER — Rocky Mountain is back to defend its state baseball title, but there's a whole bunch of new Lobos roaming the field this season.
Coming off of yet another Class 5A championship, the school's sixth since 2007, Rocky's lineup has undergone quite a bit of turnover. The team lost eight of nine regular starters, and graduated 10 seniors.
"I love that about high school baseball," said Rocky Mountain coach Scott Bullock. "You can't sign them to long-term deals — there's a few I'd love to — but that's high school baseball, and that's the fun part of it. You try to build a program that's strong year after year, regardless of how many kids you graduate. That's the challenge, that's exciting."
The Lobos, ranked No. 3 in 5A this week, got their title defense started off with an 8-3 win over Cherokee Trail on Wednesday afternoon at Coors Field.
Tyler Mata-Lloyd, a senior and the lone returning regular in the lineup, led the way with a 3-for-3 day that included two RBIs, a triple and a walk.
"It felt pretty good," Mata-Lloyd said of the win. "We're really young right now. We've just got to keep practicing, you know, practice the little things right, and it will come."
Sam Sanchez, another senior who may be Rocky's top returning arm, dazzled on the mound with a seven-strikeout performance over three innings in which he didn't allow a hit.
"He's dominant," Mata-Lloyd said of Sanchez.
"I don't think a lot of people know across the state how good Sam is," Bullock added. "We got us a pretty good No. 1, and we've got some good depth behind him."
Also back for Rocky with pitching experience from last season are Cody Stevens, Chandler Young, Jake Campbell and Blake Riott. Stevens, Young, Cade Nelson and Mata-Lloyd all threw in relief of Sanchez on Tuesday. Neither Stevens nor Mata-Lloyd allowed a hit.
"We're excited about the way we can pitch," Bullock said.
On Tuesday, Rocky Mountain (1-0) also had big contributions from Nelson (2-for-3, two RBIs) and Jaren Piepho (two-RBI double). Both are juniors.
And Hayden Heinze, a senior, was outstanding in center field, tracking down a number of deep balls that would've turned into runs. He also scored two runs.
"At Rocky, it's not much of a teaching thing. It's more of a learning thing," Mata-Lloyd said. "They see how we are, and then they go do it themselves. It's a culture, and they will live in it."
Sanchez likes what he's seen out of the new group through early-season practice, and Tuesday's game.
"I feel like every thought we lost a lot of people, we've had a bunch of new guys be able to come up and just take over their places," the senior said. "Everyone has been playing with each other for a while, so the chemistry is really good. Everyone likes to have fun — we have fun, but we take it seriously. It's a great group of guys."
Cherokee Trail — one of the state's best programs in its own right, winning the 2016 5A championship, and another in 2007 — is now 2-1 under new coach Steve Eaton. The Cougars, though unranked at this point, could play a big factor as the season wears on.
CT's Brendon Johnson came up big in relief Tuesday, striking out six Lobos in 4 1/3 innings. He allowed just one run and five hits. Isaac Hayen, who led the team in innings last season, is also a big arm for the Cougars.
The Cougars play at Fairview on Friday, while Rocky Mountain will head to California for a tournament that starts on Saturday.
"That's a good start for us," Bullock said of Tuesday's win, adding, "We've got a long ways to go, we've got a lot of work to do."