BATTLING AN UPHILL CLIMB

in Baseball/Spring Sports

After surviving a slow start, the Clifton Cubs look to climb into the middle of District 17-3A baseball chase at West Trojans Friday

Playing in the same district with two Class 3A top 10 teams, the young Clifton Cub baseball club knew they would have to do a lot of growing up quick to be in the running for a postseason berth. But more than most, the Cubs entered the 2021 season trying to overcome the lasting impact the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown last March had on Clifton’s baseball program.

But after opening the season with a 10-game losing streak, the Cubs have split their last six games. And in the process, Clifton finds itself on the verge of climbing right into the middle of the District 17-3A playoff chase as the Cubs (1-2 in district, 3-12 overall) prepare to visit the West Trojans (1-3, 6-10-1) at 7 p.m. Friday.

Coming into the season, the Cubs claimed only three returning starters – senior Devin Byrd, junior Griffin Phillips and junior Matthew Bronstad – and one returning letterman – junior Jorge Rodriguez. With only two seniors on the roster, the Cubs field one of the youngest teams since Slater took over at Clifton. And without the benefit of gaining experience last season, the Cubs entered the season playing catch-up – returning players and newcomers alike.

“Not getting to complete the 2020 season was disappointing for a couple of reasons,” Clifton baseball head coach Brian Slater said. “First of all, last year’s seniors did not get to end their athletic careers on the field. And secondly, the younger guys missed out on an opportunity to play more games and practice to help with their development for this season.

“First of all, we’re appreciative that we are able to have a season with the pandemic still going on and the way last year ended. But with the season shortened last year and the winter storm bringing things to a halt, we are a little behind where we need to be right now and I expect a few growing pains early.”

After suffering five straight blowout losses to open the season, the Cubs became competitive in the Rogers Tournament March 4-6, losing the first three games by a total of four runs before getting blanked by Class 4A Gatesville.

“Obviously, as for wins and losses, it is not the start that we had hoped for,” Slater said. “We played better overall this weekend in Rogers, and we are showing signs of improvement. As a team we are looking at being more consistent in everything we do. We gave ourselves three chances at wins this weekend and were not able to make the plays at the end to secure the victory.”

Despite dropping their district opener at Whitney March 9, the Cubs snapped the 10-game skid with a hard fought 8-8 victory over Valley Mills in the opener of the Whitney Tournament held March 11-13.

Falling behind 4-0 in the first inning, Clifton battled back to tie the game in the third before taking an 8-5 lead in the top of the sixth. But after surrendering two runs in the bottom of the sixth, Bronstad worked out of a jam to pitch a complete game and secure Clifton’s first win of the season. Byrd and senior Elias Tebo knocked in two runs each while Rodriguez and sophomore Mason Williams scored twice apiece as the Cubs managed only three hits but capitalized by drawing nine walks.

“Sometimes, the hardest win is getting the first one,” Slater said. “The kids need to understand that we got better yesterday, and that we need to keep improving and stay on that upward trajectory. We need to keep playing with confidence and make sure we are playing to win and expecting to win.”

Battling from behind again, the Cubs wasted a solid pitching performance from Byrd by committing four errors and surrendering six unearned runs in a 7-6 loss to Tolar. Sophomore Trent Guinn and Williams contributed two runs batted in each, while Phillips lead Clifton at the plate by going three of four with an RBI and a runs scored.

The Cubs came right back to close the Whitney Tournament out with a win, using a six-run inning to slug their way past Waco Connally, 9-5. Rodriguez went three for four at the plate with two RBI, while Bronstad went two for four with an RBI and a run scored. On the mound, Rodriguez and Williams combined to allow no earned runs while striking out nine.

“Good news is that we’re in district now,” Slater said. “So what anyone has done during non-district and tournaments is irrelevant record wise. We look forward to the challenge and look to continue to get better. I am proud of the character and fight we have shown so far through this tough start.”

Using the momentum built at the Whitney Tournament, the Cubs posted their first district win with a come-from-behind 13-9 decision over Riesel last Tuesday during Spring Break. In a see-saw battle that produced four lead changes, Clifton scored five runs in the bottom of the sixth to recapture the lead before Phillips shutdown Riesel in the seventh to secure the win in relief of Bronstad.

While the Cubs did not give up a single base on balls, Clifton drew 16 free passes as Bronstad walked four times and sophomore Jackson Newton three times. With runners on base, Phillips drove in seven runs going three for four with two double and a grand slam home run while Tebo went two for four to collect two RBIs.

Although Clifton dropped back-to-back games to third-ranked and district-leading Troy (4-0, 16-1) and sixth-ranked Grandview (11-2-1) in a non-district clash Tuesday night, the Cubs find themselves in the mix for a playoff berth in District 17-3A. Behind Troy, eighth-ranked Lorena (3-0, 11-3-1) and Whitney (2-1, 11-5), Clifton must overcome West, Riesel (1-3, 3-9-1) and McGregor (0-3, 6-8) down the stretch.

“We just want to concentrate on getting better every day and playing our best in district,” Slater said. “The expectation in Clifton is always to make the playoffs, and that is not going to change this year. We are in a tough district as usual. But we feel like if we keep improving and play our best in March and April that we will have a chance to compete for one those four playoff spots.”

Photos by DAVID HARDING

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