Monthly archive

May 2020

SHUTDOWN SWEEPS SEASON

in Softball

Lady Cubs watch dream of a banner season jolted by COVID-19 reality

CLIFTON – In a perfectly normal world, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) Softball State Playoffs would be well underway with a postseason field of teams vying for a spot in the State Tournament scheduled for May 27-June 1 at Red and Charline McCombs Field on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin.

But then again, there’s nothing perfectly normal about the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic world in which we live in.

Consequently for five senior Clifton Lady Cub softball players in the midst of the season of their dreams, their high school sports world came to an abrupt end April 17 when Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that all Texas schools would remain closed to in-person learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.

As a result, the UIL followed suit by cancelling all remaining spring activities, eliminating Clifton’s opportunity for an extended playoff run before it even had a chance to begin.

In the midst of winning eight of their last nine games, the Lady Cubs opened District 17-3A competition with three straight victories before their momentum came to a screeching halt when the UIL shutdown the season due to the pandemic March 13. Clifton (3-0 in district, 9-7 overall) had just completed a back-to-back, home-and-away sweep against defending co-district champion Whitney to take the early driver’s seat in the pennant chase.

Clifton Lady Cub softball head coach Sam Ledlow

“I have five seniors on my team this year, and this group was very talented together because of their cohesiveness,” Clifton softball head coach Sam Ledlow said. “We started off district beating Maypearl at home, and then taking on Whitney beating them twice. I know we were all ready for a great season and couldn’t wait to see how we would end up.”

After advancing to the Class 3A playoffs as the district’s fourth place team in 2019, the Lady Cubs opened this season by losing six of their first seven games. But behind the leadership of five seniors – Savannah Gayle, Audrey Anderson, Daniella Gaona, Bethann McMillan and Kamryn Kettler – Clifton continued to improve through the losses, building on that experience to take their game to the next level.

“I know all of us had been looking forward to this season and what these girls could accomplish,” Ledlow said. “This crisis left us all standing on edge as we waited to hear how or if we would get to finish this season. This team was a very determined group of young ladies. And I have no doubt that if we had been given the chance to finish this season, we would have been ready to get back on the dirt, picking up where we left off.”

Sadly, that opportunity never came. But despite the disappointment, Ledlow had some parting words praise about each of her 2020 seniors:

  • Savanah Gayle played any position I needed her to and exceeded at all of them. She was an outfielder and a pitcher that gave us both wins against Whitney. She was calm in the circle and confident in the outfield. That, along with her knowledge of the game, made it fun to coach her.
  • Audrey Anderson played center field and had a huge role defensively in our games throughout her career. She would sacrifice her body over and over again to make a play. Her speed and confidence out there were a big asset to our team. She could also slap on the left side as well as hit on the right side. And she was willing to do either, depending on the situation.
  • Daniella Gaona played second base and led with her quiet spirit. It seemed like nothing phased her. She always worked well under pressure and came in clutch at big moments, both offensively and defensively. She was very determined at the plate and found ways to get on base. When she struggled at the plate, she was really good at having short-term memory loss, which allowed her to move on.
  • Bethann McMillan came through for us when we needed her in the outfield. She was also willing to play anywhere and kept everyone on their toes when she would come up to bat. Her personality and comments kept everyone laughing when we needed them.
  • Kamryn Kettler played first base, pitched and was a powerhouse at the plate. She brought knowledge and skill to the field that played a huge role in our games over her career. She could dig out any bad throw to make a great play at first. And she had such quick reflexes, enabling her to knock down line drives that came off the bat hot. Her poise and attitude at the plate made her a threat to our opponents.

“I’m so thankful for the opportunity to watch and coach these girls,” Ledlow said. “They were a special group to me that I’ll always remember. While I can’t stand the thought of not getting to finish this season out with them, I know the rest of us will remember their legacy they left on the softball diamond. Because of the amount of grit, hard work and perseverance it takes to be an athlete and succeed, this group learned how to overcome adversity over the years.”

“I have no doubt they will succeed in life and be able to look back on their high school softball memories and know they gave everything they had. I’m so proud of them and couldn’t ask for a better group of seniors to leave such a legacy.”

Photos by DAVID HARDING

©2020 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

DASHED DREAMS

in Baseball

Cub seniors see shot at returning to state tourney swept away by COVID-19 shutdown

CLIFTON – Instead of embarking on an extended run in the Class 3A baseball playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, a talented group of seniors on the 2020 Clifton Cub baseball team saw their culminating season end almost before it had a chance to begin.

Coming off their unprecedented trip to the 2018 Class 3A state championship game, the Cubs closed out the 2019 regular season with a 10-game win streak to clinch their second consecutive District 17-3A title before advancing to the Region III semifinals as the state’s fifth-ranked team.

On the strength of those accomplishments, the 2020 Cubs entered the season ranked 16th in the pre-season poll behind first-team, all-state pitcher and district MVP Mason Brandenberger and first-team, all-district catcher Riley Perry, along with seniors Hayden Newton, Colby Caniford, Mason Ochoa, Joel Santillan, Weston Schasteen and Jake Sparkman.

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 University Interscholastic League (UIL) shut down the season due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic March 13.

Then, when Governor Greg Abbott announced that all Texas schools would remain closed to in-person learning for the remainder of this 2019-20 school year April 17, due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the UIL followed suit by cancelling all remaining spring activities.

And just like that, Clifton’s dreams of advancing to the state tournament for the second time in three years were snapped away.

“I am disappointed in that the seniors and the other team members did not get to finish the season on their terms,” said Clifton baseball head coach Brian Slater, who has posted a 160-74-6 record leading the Cubs. “Hopefully, they will use this as a life lesson and understand to not ever take anything for granted, to attack each day and make the most of it.

“The seniors as a group have meant a lot to the athletic program as a whole during their four years on campus. The baseball program was no exception. They, along with others, have been able to take our baseball program to new heights in Clifton over their four seasons. They accomplished a great deal as a unit and were a part of the two most successful teams in school history.”

Indeed they were, posting a school-record 30-7-1 record in 2018 before following up with an impressive 28-7 record in 2019. The Sports Buzz photographer David Harding, who witnessed almost every game this set of seniors played as he followed his two grandsons, Austin Bronstad (Class of 2018) and Matthew Bronstad (Class of 2022), offers his personal perspective for all eight members from the Class of 2020.

One of four senior players remaining from the state runner-up team of 2018, Brandenberger led the Cubs on the field and in the dugout. Playing pitcher, outfield and first base, Brandenberger performed well in each position, at the plate and on the base paths.

“Mason was also the team’s “make-up” artist, applying eye black to anyone who wanted it,” Harding said. “He was a terror on the bases, due to his many years of experience at all levels of baseball. And even though it was a short season, he exhibited his power at the plate with a home run.”

As a solid all-district performer behind the plate on the state runner-up team of 2018 and last year’s team, Perry continued his exhibition of catching skills in 2020, while pitching and playing in the outfield as well.

“Riley’s natural ability and speed were great assets in the outfield as well,” Harding said. “He pitched in several games with good results. And as usual, Riley was solid at the plate. He has exhibited an uncanny skill over the years at getting on base by being hit with a pitch. And his base running skill and speed were awesome.”

Another holdover from the state runner-up team of 2018, Newton proved to be a quiet leader by example with his solid play at first base, catcher and pitcher, along with a good positive attitude.

“Hayden’s performance at the plate was as solid as anyone,” Harding said. “Behind the plate, he was a wall, and exhibited a very good arm throwing down to second. He pitched in several games with good solid performances and was steady as a rock at first base.”

Still recovering from a knee injury suffered during football season, Caniford never made it onto the field this season.

“Colby was another of the four senior players remaining from the state runner-up team of 2018,” Harding said. “He provided leadership and encouragement from his position in the dugout, as well as doing an “all state” job of keeping stats on Game Changer.”

Playing pitcher and shortstop this season, Ochoa provided solid play at the shortstop position after shifting over from third base.

“Pitching in several games, Mason was solid at the plate and used his speed on the base paths to the best advantage,” Harding said. “Not overly vociferous, Mason used his quiet nature to lead by example.”

With an excellent attitude and his speed, Santillan contributed to the team as an outfielder and courtesy runner this season.

“Never one to complain, Joel was a team player no matter the situation in which he was used,” Harding said. “He always gave the best effort on every play. And when not in the game, he was one of the best at encouraging his fellow teammates.”

Playing in the outfield and at second base, Schasteen provided a solid bat at the plate throughout the season.

“Weston used his great speed to track balls down in the outfield and on the base path,” Harding said. “Never a loud person, Weston was one of several quiet leaders on the team this year.”

The same could be said of Sparkman, who pitched and played third base.

“Jake was one of several players this year who had bided their time in previous years on the team,” Harding said. “Working into the starting line-up this year, he was solid at third Base. His pitching was limited to several relief appearances, but the performance he gave was quite good. At the plate, he always gave a good solid performance.”

With a large senior class of eight coming back from two of the most successful seasons in school history, Slater held high expectations for the 2020 season. And certainly, he did not stand alone.

“Each senior will hold a place in my heart forever, and I will always be thankful that they allowed me to coach them and be a small part of their lives the last four years,” Slater said. “Hopefully, they will take the lessons they learned while participating in the Clifton athletic and baseball programs and use those lessons to become successful citizens and adults.”

Speaking directly to the Class of 2020, Slater had one more thing to say.

“Seniors you will be missed, and I cannot wait to see the men that you become. Thanks for all your hard work and for everything you have done for me personally and professionally. Good luck to you all on your future endeavors. And if you need anything, Coach Slater is just a phone call or text a way.”

Photos by DAVID HARDING

©2020 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

IN SEARCH OF THE NEW NORMAL

in Commentary

Hopeful sports fans look to baseball for normalcy in wake of pandemic

Now what?

No one can deny the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has brought an end to the world as we know it. But while we all know there will be light at the end of the tunnel, we have to wonder what exactly the new normal will look like?

Unfortunately, while the pandemic has ushered in a period of fear and isolation, it has also denied a nation fixated on sports its opportunity for much-needed escapism from the stress and troubles of the world.

Clearly, cancellations across all levels of athletics became essential as the world rallied in an effort to flatten the curve, beginning on March 11 when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic – the first such declaration in 11 years. The announcement began a cascade of postponements and suspensions of sporting events.

While the national prospects of sports resuming their respective schedules any time in the near future became more and more unlikely, Texans held out hope that high school athletics might restore a sliver of normalcy by May. From the beginning of the shutdowns, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) expressed the unwillingness to pull the plug on the winter and spring academic and athletic activities.

But Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order April 17 proclaiming all schools—including public, private, and higher education institutions—closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, the UIL found itself with no choice but to follow suit. In the process, spring activities such as baseball, softball, track & field, tennis and golf were cancelled.

Now as we continue to battle the trouble with the curve, the national pastime of baseball represents our greatest hope of tossing us a lifeline to some sliver of normalcy. But if Major League Baseball manages to open the 2020 season in late June, there will be nothing normal about it.

As MLB officials cautiously began to unveil an optimistic and unique plan this week, baseball fans were given the possible target date of starting the season no later than July 2. Not only does the MLB plan to play at least 100 regular-season games, all 30 teams would be playing in their own major-league ballparks, albeit with no fans.

Sounds pretty normal, right? But hang on, sports fans. Here’s where it starts to get really interesting.

Forget about the tradition of teams from the National League and the American League competing for the right to face off in the World Series, an American institution since 1903. MLB would abolish the traditional leagues, realigning based on geography into three 10-team divisions, while teams would play only within their own division.

In the process, the divisions would maintain many of the natural rivalries, offering exciting matchups between arch rivals for the right to advance into an expanded playoff format.

Here’s a look at the possible realignment structure:

EAST

New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Marlins

WEST

Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners

CENTRAL

Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers

It would not be the first time the MLB made the best of a bad situation. In 1995, following the settlement of a player strike, the season was cut to 144 games rather than the usual 162 games. In 1981, when a player strike wiped out almost two months of the season, MLB played a split season in which teams averaged 107 games, and the All-Star Game kicked off the second half of the season.

While several possible plans have been floated around since the postponement of MLB’s opening day March 26, this concept has been gaining support among owners and executives. The proposal includes opening the season in Arizona, Florida and Texas for several weeks before everyone could return to their home stadiums. With that, teams could squeeze in 80-100 games, and perhaps even have several thousand fans in attendance before or during the playoffs.

MLB teams likely will still return to their own spring-training facilities in Arizona and Florida when they resume workouts. Players are expected to be given a week to return to spring training sites, and have 18 to 21 days before the start of the season.

The plan, pending approval of medical experts and providing the availability of COVID-19 testing to the public, would eliminate the need for players to be in isolation and allow them to still play at their home ballparks while severely reducing travel.

It takes the original so-called “Arizona plan” placing all 30 teams in the Phoenix area, quarantined in hotels and playing their games in the 10 spring training ballparks, and makes it better – a more player-friendly proposal that does not force them to be away from their families for months on end.

But before we get our hopes up, keep in mind that MLB and union officials have yet to engage in formal discussions about the financial ramifications of playing without fans. A handful of owners have made it know they would refuse to play unless the players were willing to take a pay cut. Other team officials insist they would require financial relief from the players.

Regardless, optimism abounds among executives believing they could settle their differences in negotiations on a sliding scale depending on the loss of revenue from gate receipts, parking and concessions. The players have already agreed to take pro-rated salaries based upon a shortened season, but the owners would be asking them to take even less. Teams also would need to revise their revenue-sharing plan.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the 78-year-old Republican from Kentucky, certainly likes the plan and knows how much America needs baseball right now. In an interview with a Louisville radio station Thursday, McConnell discussed how he called MLB commissioner Rob Manfred recently, asking how and when baseball might return.

“I called the commissioner of baseball a couple weeks ago and said, ‘America needs baseball. It’s a sign of getting back to normal. Any chance?’” McConnell told Drew Deener and Jason Nemes of 93.9 FM. “As you may have heard there is discussion about having an abbreviated season beginning around the Fourth of July where teams would either play in their spring training sites in Arizona or Florida or play at home to largely empty stadiums. There’s an active discussion underway to salvage part of baseball season.”

The league has expressed confidence in a return while noting the significant hurdles posed by COVID-19. Most notably, multiple federal and local officials note that large gatherings – such as movie theaters or sports arenas with or without fans – will be the last stage of a reopening as governments seek to loosen social distancing guidelines and invigorate an economy in crisis.

Yet McConnell’s remarks represent the second branch of government expressing perhaps misguided hope for sport’s return. President Donald Trump said in an April 4 conference call with major sports commissioners that he hoped for a late-summer reopening for sports and expressed confidence the NFL would start on time.

Meanwhile, several states have seen protests from citizens demanding that businesses and the economy at large be allowed to reopen, despite warnings from health officials that loosening restrictions too soon could worsen the pandemic.

With that said, the return of major sports could be viewed as accelerating the process of normalization – with the biggest of all, football, nearly on the clock. Clearly, McConnell envisions MLB paving the path.

“If we can salvage part of baseball, surely we can salvage football, as well,” McConnell said. “I think the country needs sports. We’ve all missed that during the pandemic and the sooner we can get at least some of our sports – and I think the one eligible to begin first, would be baseball – it’d be a great morale-booster for the country and an indication that we are going to begin to get back to normal.”

Baseball may symbolize a return to normalcy, but as the proposed plan demonstrates, the 2020 MLB season will be anything but normal. A sense of normalcy will prevail once the regular season commences, but the schedule and playoff format promises to throw us a curveball.

“This is going to be a season like we’ve never seen,” one MLB official told MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal. “But that’s fine. It’s at least a season.’’

Indeed, it’s the end of the world as we know it. But as long as we have baseball, one way or the other, we’ll be fine.

©2020 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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