La Cueva, N.M.'s state softball title connection to Little League team is big-time

Photo: La Cueva softball

La Cueva, N.M.'s state softball title connection to Little League team is big-time

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La Cueva, N.M.'s state softball title connection to Little League team is big-time

Eastdale Little League from Albuquerque, N.M. won the 2012 softball World Series title by battering the competition, taking all six games at the Series while outscoring opponents 67-5.

Last week, six of those players, now juniors and seniors in high school, hit 1-through-6 in the lineup for La Cueva (Albuquerque) and led the Bears to a 28-0 record and its first state softball title since 2005.

The comparisons were almost eerie. Andrea “Mo” Howard was the star in the Little League championship game, going 3-for-4 with five RBI. In the state championship game last week against defending champion Onate (Las Cruces), the senior outfielder-pitcher hit a two-run homer in a 5-0 victory and all of the players from the former Eastdale team either scored a run or drove in one.

“I didn’t really have a flashback, but I was excited to be able to help my team out,” Howard said. “It was a nail-biter for a while.”

From the time they entered high school, because of the national attention they had received, people in the state were watching to see how the players would do.

“These girls, there were a lot of expectations,” said Laurie McAlister, the mother of catcher Jessica McAlister. “They were sort of the darlings of New Mexico because a lot of people knew who they were.”

The pressure to win grew after the team fell in the third round of the 6A state playoffs last season, La Cueva coach Ron Romero said.

“These girls knew they were better than that,” Romero said. “Every year, I have exit meetings to talk to them about the season. All of the juniors who would be seniors said they knew that every team was after us, that they want to beat La Cueva. This year, we had the mindset that we need to be prepared every game.”

As the wins began to pile up this season, the players kept in mind how they had fallen short last season.

“We didn’t really care about the streak,” Howard said. “We were completely aware of the situation. We knew that people were expecting something big out of us, but we were more focused on our game.”

“We just took every game with the same mentality,” Jessica McAlister said. “Just play as hard as we can and have each other’s back. Every girl on the team played within themselves and the mindset that this is not an “I” sport, but a team sport.”

“After the first couple of games, the girls came up with a cheer,” Romero said. ” ‘Who’s not done? We’re not done! La Cueva on three.’ They made that up themselves and in their mind, they knew they wouldn’t be done.”

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Romero began coaching La Cueva last season, when he came over from Hope Christian (Albuquerque). He said the team unity was already evident.

“There was something special with this team from the day I took the job,” Romero said. “They’re great kids. They don’t look down upon anybody. All they do is pick everybody up. I would combine my practices with the JV and varsity during the off-season so my JV players could see how hard these girls work.”

All four of the former Eastdale players who are now seniors have signed to play college softball. Howard is headed to New Mexico, along with infielder Taylor Jones. Infielder-outfielder Katherine Sanchez has signed with Santa Clara while McAlister is headed to Montana.

While the core of the team came from the Eastdale squad, the girls had to make some adjustments, for new teammates and a different style of playing.

The team’s pitcher in the championship game was senior Kendra Keahbone, a Fort Lewis signee who had played for Petroglyph, a rival team in Little League.

“She was the nemesis of that Little League team and they finally got her to come over to the other side,” Romero said. “The story they gave me is they couldn’t hit her when they were in Little League, so they got a pitching machine and cranked it up as much as they could and they named it Kendra. They got good enough to where they got past her in Little League, but now she’s on our team.”

Six members of La Cueva’s state championship softball team played on Eastdale’s Little League World Champions in 2012. (Photo: Little League).

The other adjustment the Eastdale six had to make is in high school they couldn’t always out-slug their opponents, so they had to find other ways to win at times.

“I play a lot of small ball and that’s something different for them,” Romero said. “When you’re in Little League, you can bash your way and you don’t have to be that strategic if you’re a good hitting team. We won two games on a squeeze play. We won our Metro Championships on back-to-back squeeze plays and we won in the semifinal at state on a squeeze play. That’s something they weren’t familiar with but we bought into this year.”

Howard said each time, the play was nerve-wracking.

“Those games were crazy. Whenever he calls a squeeze, we all pray and bite our nails together,” Howard said. “But it’s so effective and I’m so glad he was able to teach us well how to execute them.”

Jessica McAlister said it will be different next season with all new teammates in college.

“Definitely, it’s going to be a next experience because I’ve been playing with my best friends since I was seven or eight,” McAlister said. “It’s going to be a new thing, but I’m excited about it.”

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