RIO RANCHO — The end of the road is never pleasant for a high school team, especially when that end means saying goodbye to a senior class that provided more energy than any coach could have asked for.

That’s what made a postgame meeting so difficult for the Santa Fe Indian School baseball team Friday afternoon. With the setting sun casting hard shadows over their circle just outside the right field line at Rio Rancho High’s facility, the Braves players and coaches took turns sharing their thoughts on the season that just ended.

SFIS was beaten 7-6 by East Mountain in the semifinals of the Class 3A State Baseball Tournament, a loss that ended what looked and felt like a magic carpet ride from the moment it started nearly two weeks ago.

That’s when the Braves learned they’d been seeded No. 8 in the 12-team field, a veritable slap in the face for a team that felt it was as good as anyone in the state.

“I knew this team was going to be special. I knew it from the moment of our first practice,” said SFIS coach Jude Torres.

He might have been one of the few outside his program who actually thought that. Consider the facts before rushing to judgment: The Braves had played just two games since the spring of 2019 and most of the players on this year’s team hadn’t practiced in nearly two years.

The 2020 season was just two games old when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the rest of the schedule. Last season never happened because SFIS was still in remote learning and opted out of the spring campaign.

While most players these days tend to play club baseball when the high school season wraps up, nearly all SFIS players don’t put on a glove or swing a bat until the first day of practice.

“Most of these kids scatter, and during the pandemic, the pueblos were closed, no going in or out,” Torres said. “It’s not like there’s that many chances to play baseball. For two years we didn’t have a team so, yeah, the first day back was kind of like starting from square one. We were working on basics like hitting cuts and running bases when everyone else was already into it.”

The Braves started the postseason by outlasting district rival West Las Vegas in the best-of-three opening round, then sent shockwaves through the tournament by upsetting No. 1 St. Michael’s in Thursday’s quarterfinals. The players spoke about receiving a low seed in the tournament and felt disrespected, but Owen Pecos saw it a little differently.

The junior who came up so big time and again in Friday’s game said it was all a matter of the team developing chemistry as the season unfolded.

“We really were a family,” Pecos said. “It took a little while to start playing really good, but we have always treated each other like brothers.”

Pecos had a pair of storybook moments against East Mountain. Batting in the No. 8 hole, he went 3 for 3 with a walk and three runs batted in. With the Braves trailing 4-3 in the top of the fifth inning, he came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. Pecos quickly fell behind 0-2, then stepped out of the batter’s box to take a deep breath.

He followed it with a clean single to center that brought home Kyle Suina and Kavin Calabaza to put the Braves in front 5-4.

With the season on the line in the final inning, Pecos answered the bell again when he smacked a single to score Hunter Herrera with the tying run, a hit that never left the infield but was hit in such a way that it allowed Herrera to score all the way from second to make it 6-6.

East Mountain responded by getting the walk-off a few minutes later when Tristen Nemitz singled to right to score Trace Krueger from second.

It triggered a wave of emotion from the SFIS dugout: tears, hugs, muffled conversations between players and coaches. Within minutes, the team had reconvened in that spot outside the fence, the players taking off their game jerseys and leaving them with assistant coach Matt Martinez. Most shuffled away in silence, heading back to the parking lot to get ready for Friday night’s prom in Santa Fe.

“Just a sad way to end it but, man, I’m not sure what more to say about this team other than I’m so proud of what they did and how they left it all on the field,” Torres said. “Nothing to feel down about. We did everything we could.”

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