Clovis coach Shane Shallenberger talks to his team about base running from second base during a practice last month at Bell Park. (CNJ photo: Eric Kluth)
By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
In his first three seasons as Clovis High’s baseball coach, Shane Shallenberger led the Wildcats to uncharted territory — three consecutive Class 5A postseason appearances, capped by a trip to the 5A state finals in 2004.
Last season, the Cats went from the penthouse to — well, not making the playoffs. They finished 9-17, including 2-10 in District 4-5A.
With seven seniors on the roster, Clovis is hopeful of returning to postseason glory in 2006.
“It’s a big motivation,” senior shortstop-pitcher Sean Cruce said of bouncing back from last season. “We have seven (starters) back, so that helps a lot.
“It was a disappointing year, but all we can do is use it for motivation.”
The Cats open the season against Santa Fe High at 5 p.m. Thursday in the Clovis Invitational at Bell Park.
Clovis is the defending tournament champions. Other first-round games send Rio Rancho against El Paso Bel Air at 9:30 a.m., Levelland against El Paso Del Valle at noon and Hereford against Deming at 5 p.m., with the championship game set for 5 p.m. Saturday.
Shallenberger said if the Cats can pitch well enough, they should be competitive in what is now a three-team district with Carlsbad and Hobbs.
“Our pitching is average, but I think we’ll be able to swing it (hit) a little bit,” he said. “I think our defense should be solid also.
“As long as they (pitchers) can hit spots and throw strikes and let the defense play, we’ve got a chance to win some ballgames.”
Rather than the three-game weekend series format in the former five-team district, the schedule now calls for home-and-home doubleheaders to be played on Tuesdays and Saturdays. That should ease some concerns about pitching depth.
“The only bad thing is you face everyone’s No. 1 pitcher in two out of four games,” Shallenberger noted.
Cruse, a fourth-year regular and the Cats’ closer last season, is expected to pick up the team’s lead pitching role.
“I started a lot during the summer, and I started a couple of games last year,” he said. “It’s a different role, no doubt, but starting in the summer helped me out.”
Behind him are junior Cade Wheeler, senior Daniel Casarez, senior Jared Powers and junior Jonathan Ware, all righties. Shallenberger said the Cats might also get some help from freshman left-hander Parker Wood.
The infield should include senior Chase Denton at first, backed up by Wood; sophomore returnee Jarod Kiser at second; Cruce at short, with Wheeler taking over when he pitches, and Powers, Cruce or sophomore Jerry Romero covering third.
The outfield should include senior Devin Sweet in left, senior Matt Ulibarri in center and either senior Robert Windham, Ware or Powers in right. Windham is a transfer from Grady, while Sweet will be available upon completion of the basketball season.
“Last year we didn’t win as many games as we’d hoped; only winning nine games was kind of embarrassing,” said Ulibarri, a third-year starter and the Cats’ leadoff man. “It just made everyone work harder in the offseason.”
He said he and Cruce are looking forward to going out in style.
“Me and Sean have grown up on this field,” he said of Bell Park. “Every year, this is where we spent our summers.
“We don’t want to go out losing. We played on the first team to win a district championship and the first team that went to state. Now we want to win state.”
Despite the small number of teams, Shallenberger thinks the district should be strong at the state level.
“I think Carlsbad is the team to beat in the state,” he said. “They only lost one or two people, and they’ve got all their pitching back.
“Whoever finishes third in our district, the state will have to take a look at them (for an at-large postseason berth). We’re all pretty solid teams.”