"It's not over, until the seventh."
That's the Montezuma-Cortez High School baseball team's new motto for the 2013 season.
Many times last season, the Panthers possessed leads in the fifth and sixth innings - only later to see each lead slip away in the seventh and lose.
Not this year.
"They're tired of being on the bottom end. They're all going to push themselves," said first-year Panthers coach Matt Betts. "Win or lose, I want them to play an entire game and play it as hard as they possibly can. You'll earn respect of the other team no matter what."
Top pitchers Dakota "Buddha" Goosen and Gerardo Martinez are back on the mound. Senior catcher/center field captain Tallon Ralstin will see more time on the mound. Sophomore Konnar McGee will see time pitching, too.
"We've got two of the best pitchers in the league this year with Buddha and Gerardo," Ralstin said. "With them in our rotation, teams are going to have a hard time hitting off of us."
Improved pitching will be key for the Panthers. The last two seasons under former coach Sam Perry, M-CHS had no problems putting up points. But giving up points was a problem, especially, in the deciding seventh inning.
Although Betts is coaching the varsity for the first time, he has coached the seniors in some fashion since they were 13 years old. He coached the Panthers junior varsity last season.
"I think we have a strong team," said Betts, a former M-CHS baseball player, who graduated in 2001. "I think we have a team that has tons of heart and desire. I know we have the physical ability to hang with any team in our league. Our mental ability, needs to be that 'You will not beat me.'"
Ralstin is also a great hitter behind the plate and slugger Major Lackey returns. Sophomore Randy Haley is expected to make a big jump in the starting lineup this season.
"He was a varsity player last year and I think he was a little bit awestruck by the difference," said Betts about Haley's freshman season. "I think this year, he's going to come out and really shine as an outfielder for us and a hitter."
With the senior leadership and new winning attitude, the Panthers feel this could be the year for postseason play.
"We have a bunch of good guys that are returning," Ralstin said. "The way I'm looking at it, is if we work hard, because we've been coming to extra (unofficial) practices as a team without the coaches, we're going to win a lot of games this year. We got a good shot at playoffs."
M-CHS opens the season with a three-day home tournament at McAndrew Field next Thursday through Saturday.
The Panthers host regional schools Dove Creek, Monticello (Utah) and Dolores.
"These first games are going to be some telltale signs of what we need to work on," Betts said. "Of course we want to win, but we also want to see where our weak points are. We'll use these games as a definite teaching experience for these young men."
M-CHS will also travel to a three-game tourney in Aztec, N.M., before hosting New Mexico foe Shiprock on March 26. The Panthers open conference play in the tough 5A/4A Southwestern League against Montrose on March 29, before going on spring break.
"Hopefully, we can go out and make a statement to everybody in the league," Ralstin said. "Hopefully, we can make a statement that we're ready for this season and ready to take on anybody. No matter who they are."
The Panthers conclude the regular season April 30, at home versus rival Durango.
First pitch against Dove Creek (1-0) is Thursday afternoon at 1:30.