CLIFTON – Coming off a District 17-3A baseball championship and Class 3A Regional Semifinals appearance, the Clifton Cubs carried high expectations into the 2020 campaign as the state’s 16th-ranked team in the TxHighSchoolBaseball.com Class 3A preseason poll.
After a bumpy ride through a highly-competitive non-district schedule, the Cubs appeared poised to make a run at their eighth straight trip to the playoffs when the UIL shutdown the season due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic March 13.
With a host of seniors among five returning starters and nine returning lettermen from a squad finishing with an impressive 28-7 record while losing only one district game, the Cubs anxiously await the chance to resume play. Led by senior district MVP and first-team, all-state pitcher Mason Brandenberger and senior first-team, all-district catcher Riley Perry, Clifton hopes to make its second trip to the state tournament in three years.
“The expectations every year is to compete for the district championship and make a deep run in the playoffs,” said Clifton baseball head coach Brian Slater, who has posted a 160-74-6 record leading the Cubs. “We are being led by a large senior class of eight, and we are leaning on their experience and leadership to help guide us through the season. We look to continue to improve when the season resumes, and we look forward to competing and maximizing our potential as a team.”
Before the UIL suspended all Spring sports, Clifton (0-1 in district, 5-8 overall) stayed busy during Spring Break beginning March 7, traveling to Salado for a non-district game March 9 before returning home to host Whitney in the District 17-3A opener March 10.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, after suffering a 6-0 loss at Salado, Whitney handed Clifton a decisive 7-2 district opening loss. The Wildcats (1-0, 8-6) snapped a scoreless tie with two runs in the fourth inning before tacking on three more in the fifth.
The Cubs responded with a two-run spot in the sixth as senior Hayden Newton knocked in Brandenberger for Clifton’s first run before senior Mason Ochoa delivered a run-scoring triple. But Whitney put the game away by answering with two runs in the seventh.
Refusing to stay down, the Cubs took their frustrations out on Tolar by sweeping a non-district doubleheader at home March 12.
Clifton’s bats came alive against Tolar, slapping 11 hits to run-rule the Rattlers, 13-3, in the opener behind a solid mound effort from sophomore Griffin Phillips. The Cubs built an early lead by scoring two in the first and five more in the second, giving Phillips a chance to settle down and toss four straight scoreless innings while striking out five.
At the plate, Newton went two-for-four to drive in three runs, while Perry sent two-for-four scoring two runs and knocking in another, and Phillips helped his own cause by going two-for-four with two runs scored and an RBI.
The second game proved to be anything but a blowout as Tolar put up three runs in the first inning. As Clifton trailed, 3-0, with only two outs in the first, sophomore Matthew Bronstad took the mound and shut down the Rattlers as the Cubs mounted a comeback. Bronstad pitched the final 6.1 innings, allowing only one earned run while striking out six.
In the meantime, Clifton answered the early Tolar outburst with two runs of their own in the bottom of the first before tying the score with another run in the third. Behind the bats of Brandenberger, Perry, Newton, Ochoa and Phillips, the Cubs took a two-run advantage in the fourth before holding off a Rattler rally to secure a 5-4 win.
With the momentum of back-to-back victories to build on, the Cubs appeared ready to resume district competition when Clifton heard the disappointing news of the shutdown.
Responding to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order mandating public schools remain temporarily closed through Monday, May 4 due to COVID-19 crisis, the UIL further modified its contingency plans last Friday, extending its previously announced timeline indefinitely for completing activities this academic school year.
As a result of the extension, the UIL will need to alter and rework a timeline for returning to competition built around school resuming May 4. As that date approaches, UIL plans to monitor all available information and provide member schools with more specific guidance on district and post-season date adjustments related to this new extension, as well as allowing a reasonable acclimatization period prior to resuming games.
Once that happens, the Cubs will be ready.
Photos by DAVID HARDING
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