Battling in the tough District 17-3A, the Clifton Cubs continue to struggle in rebuilding mode against some of the best competition the state has to offer, closing out season against co-leading Grandview
Finding themselves in a tough district from top-to-bottom coming into the season in rebuilding mode, the Clifton Cubs knew they would have their hands full during the 2023 Texas high school baseball season. Coming into the season looking to earn a trip to the Class 3A playoffs for the first time since 2019, the Cubs have continued to rebuild with the good balance of experience and youth as the prospects for the future look promising.
But since splitting a pair of games against the Keene Chargers to open District 17-3A competition, the Cubs have dropped six straight, getting swept by the Whitney Wildcats and the 22nd-ranked West Trojans before losing twice to the district co-leading and 12th-ranked Maypearl Panthers to be eliminated from the playoff race.
With two games remaining in the regular season, it won’t get any easier for the Cubs (1-7 in district, 4-19-1 overall) as Clifton closes out the schedule with two games against co-leading Grandview (7-1, 13-14-1), visiting the Zebras at 7 p.m. Friday before wrapping it up home next Tuesday at Cub Stadium.
“In the three of the last four games, we struggled to score runs and have consistent quality at bats, which has led to us struggling to find wins,” Clifton baseball head coach Brian Slater said. “Grandview is currently tied for first, so it will definitely be a challenge these last two games.
“We are still competing hard and pitching and playing solid defense. We just need to find some more offense to give us a better chance to win any of the remaining games.”
Facing the 22nd-ranked West Trojans (4-4, 18-6) last Tuesday, the Cubs were unable to earn a series split after dropping the first game, 7-2, on the road before the extended Easter weekend. Clifton jumped out to an early 1-0 lead in the top of the first, but West immediately responded by putting three runs in the bottom of the inning and adding on from there. Carter Tunnell led the Cubs by going three-for-four at the plate, while Clay Kennedy and Erving Rodriguez scored runs, and Trent Guinn collected an RBI.
In the second game, West starting pitcher tossed a complete-game, no-hitter while striking out 15.
In the first of the two-game set against Maypearl last Friday, Panther pitchers Cord Rager, Heath Grat and Baley Ray combined for a two-hit shutout while striking out 16. Leading off for the Cubs, Kennedy went two-for-three at the plate to collect Clifton’s only hits of the game.
Closing out the series against Maypearl on the road Tuesday, the Cubs found themselves in a nine-run hole before breaking out for a five-run inning in the top of the fifth. But it proved to be too little, too late in a 10-5 loss to the state-ranked Panthers (7-1, 17-6). Mason Williams tossed two no-hit innings in relief to give Clifton a chance as Carter Tunnell went two-for-three with a double and a triple, knocking in three runs.
Following a district-opening 5-3 loss at Keene March 21, the Cubs pulled out a dramatic 8-7 come-from-behind victory over the Chargers (1-7, 2-14) March 24 to salvage a series split. Entering the game in the top of the fourth with Clifton trailing, 7-5, Mason Williams tossed four shutout innings, allowing only two hits while striking out five to earn the win.
At the plate, Trent Guinn drew a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the sixth to produce what proved to be the winning run. Samuel Cecil went two-for three with a double to drive in two runs, while Clay Kennedy and James Liardon both scored twice.
“We responded well after a disappointing start to District in Keene,” Slater said. “We showed a lot of competitiveness, and our ability to overcome adversity after being down early on Friday at home. I am proud of the comeback we made and hope we can sustain the momentum from the win and carry it over to the Whitney series this upcoming week.”
Unfortunately for the Cubs, Whitney (4-4, 13-9-1) rose to the occasion to sweep the two-game set last week, winning the first game, 5-0, in Whitney before rallying for a 10-7 victory in Clifton. Whitney starting pitcher Colby Estill dominated the Cubs in the opener, tossing a two-hit, complete game shutout while striking out 12. Kennedy and Ervin Rodriguez collected Clifton’s only hits.
In the second game, the Cubs responded with a seven-run third inning to overcome the Wildcats’ early four-run lead. But Whitney came right back, scoring five runs in the bottom of the fourth and tacking on an insurance run in the fifth. Williams drove in two runs and Liardon went two-for-three at the plate with a run scored and another driven in.
Despite embarking on the District 17-3A pennant chase riding a three-game losing streak, the Cubs faced a gauntlet of quality opponents during the non-district and tournament schedule. After a solid performance at the Jarrell Tournament March 9-11 before Spring Break, Clifton dropped a 6-2 decision against defending Class 2A state champion Valley Mills March 13, and came up short in a hard-fought 7-6 loss to the Waxahachie Life Mustangs March 14.
“We definitely took away some positives from last week,” said Slater, assisted by Zane Williams this season. “I believed that we competed better as a team and that we showed more consistency with our performance in certain areas.
With five seniors and six returning starters, the Cubs have been led by senior pitcher-shortstop Trent Guinn, senior pitcher-infielder Samuel Cecil, senior pitcher-outfielder Carter Tunnell, senior pitcher-outfielder Mason Williams and junior pitcher-second baseman Clay Kennedy.
“We have a good mix of youth and experience,” Slater said. “Our expectation was to compete in every game we played. We wanted to continue to improve as the season progresses and fight for one of the four playoff spots.”
After struggling through a couple of rebuilding seasons since losing most of the 2020 campaign to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cubs appear to be on the verge challenging in what should prove to be a tough District 17-3A pennant chase. After making eight consecutive playoff appearances including a trip to the state championship game in 2018 under Slater’s guidance, Clifton has posted back-to-back losing seasons since the COVID-19 shutdown.
After notching their first win early by knocking off Class 4A Hillsboro, 13-9, in the second game of the season, the Cubs were hopeful they were on the verge of returning to past glory. But then, and extended losing streak ensued.
“The opening weekend was about showing improvement game to game and becoming more consistent in our play,” Slater said. “I felt like we did that to an extent. Unfortunately, we were only able to pull one win out of the week even though I felt like we had opportunities for at least two more that we had chances in.”
Snapping an eight-game losing streak with a dominating 13-0 road victory over the Class 4A Waco Connally March 7, the Cubs produced a solid performance in the Jarrell Tournament over the weekend before giving the Class 2A defending state champion Valley Mills Eagles all they could handle in a 6-2 loss.
On the road against Valley Mills, Cecil turned in another solid performance on the mound without giving up an earned run in five innings of work. But the Cubs committed five errors and could not produce enough offense to keep up against the Eagles after giving up two unearned runs in the first inning.
Forcing extra innings against Waxahachie Life, the Cubs rallied for two runs in the top of the seventh before giving up the game-winner to the Mustangs in the bottom of the eighth. Once again, Clifton’s six errors proved to be the difference despite strong pitching performances from Guinn and Williams. Guinn helped his own cause by knocking in two runs, Kennedy scored twice, and Carter Tunnell went two-for-three at the plate with an RBI to lead the Cubs.
Against Waco Connally, Cub starting pitcher Cecil tossed a two-hit shutout while Carter Tunnell drove in four runs to give Clifton the kind of win they could build on. Bryan Ramirez knocked in two more runs and leadoff hitter Kennedy scored three times against the Cadets.
“We played our most complete game up to this point,” Slater said. “We are improving in all aspects, and we are looking forward to this weekend to give us another opportunity to keep getting better.”
And that’s exactly what the Cubs did in the Jarrell Tournament, opening with a 3-3 tie against the Class 5A Killeen Shoemaker Grey Wolves last Thursday. Clifton jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first inning, before Shoemaker bounced back to take a 3-2 lead into the fifth. But the Cubs rallied in the top of the fifth to force a tie.
Against the Grey Wolves, Rodriguez drove in two runs and Ramirez knocked in another, while Carter Tunnell and Kennedy combined for a three-hitter.
Despite losing to host Class 4A Jarrell, 5-1, Thursday and Class 4A Lago Vista, 12-5, over the weekend, the Cubs posted another impressive victory by crushing Class 5A Pflugerville Connally, 14-1, last Friday. In the win over the Cougars, Guinn tossed a two-hitter allowing only one unearned run, Jacob Nickel and Kennedy knocked in two runs apiece, while Liardon and Rodriguez cross the plate three time each.
Although the Cubs came up short in their quest to return to the Class 3A postseason tournament for the first time in four seasons, the Clifton baseball program took steps in the right direction.
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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