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
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