Around the TRAC: Working the midnight oil to earn that elite status

Senior shortstop Jamal O’Guinn is a standout on the Buchanan baseball team, who is ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 2 in the nation by Baseball America. The Bears have started the year 6-0. (Photo by Bobby Medlin)

By Paul Meadors | Sports Editor

Elite – a word that conjures up images of the best of the best, the upper class, the creme de la creme. In the world of pro sports perhaps you think of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, Tom Brady, J.J. Watt as elite. How about teams like the San Antonio Spurs, the New York Yankees in their prime or maybe the men’s basketball teams at the University of North Carolina and women’s team at UCONN? Those are just examples of many (cue barbershop discussion) but just what is the criteria to earn elite status?

I’ve written a lot about the Clovis West girls basketball team this season and for good reason –  they’ve played the toughest girls high school schedule in the nation this season, traveling to Hawaii to play in the Iolani Classic and then winning the Nike Tournament of Champions tournament in Arizona, thus earning national elite status in my opinion and the opinion of many experts as well. They’re not ranked No. 5 in the nation and 30-2 by accident. They’ve earned it by taking pride in their craft, silent hours shooting in the gym, hitting the weight room – all the extra things that take a team from great to elite.

We here in Clovis have had the honor of watching right in front of us some elite sports teams and programs. Last season the Buchanan baseball team went 30-1 and was ranked No. 1 in the nation by multiple publications at the end of the season. The Clovis and Buchanan wrestling programs the last seven years have combined to win every single CIF state wrestling team championship. And we can safely say that this year’s Clovis West girls team is elite with a chance in the coming weeks to earn the highest honor they can achieve – a coveted state championship. The last Central Section team to capture a state title was the 2001 Hanford girls basketball team. We could have one this season.

Elite is certainly earned and never given.

Basketball bummer: Boys teams eliminated from playoffs

It was a Friday to forget on Feb. 24 for Buchanan, Clovis North and Clovis West as the boys basketball teams were all eliminated in the second round of the Central Section Division I playoffs, a quick and sudden end to a season that started with such hope.

The biggest bummer was No. 2 seeded Clovis West’s (25-4) shocking 71-68 home loss to No. 10 Bullard, a game that saw the Golden Eagles fall behind 18-7 late in the first quarter, recovering to a 57-54 lead early in the fourth before the Knights capped off the upset with a 17-9 run to end the game.

The disappointment was strongly apparent for Clovis West head coach Vance Walberg in his return to high school coaching since guiding the Golden Eagles to six Central Section championships from 1989-2002.

“This time of the year you better be ready to go and Bullard just played better than we did,” said Walberg. “They made some runs and we answered a few of them but we could never get over the hump. When you get into playoff time you have to play ‘A’ basketball and we didn’t play ‘A’ basketball.”

Senior guard Adrian Antunez scored 16 points as did classmate Walter Graves but it wasn’t enough as the loss ended the careers of these three-year varsity players – a class that never reached the D-I Valley championship game. Antunez, the 6-foot guard who was averaging 23 points per game, will continue his basketball career at Fresno Pacific College. Graves, a 6-foot-6 swing player is undecided. It was a tough blow to the program that has lost their last five trips to the Central Section D-I title game.

“Bullard did a much better job and played harder than we did and as a coach that’s hard to accept but that’s what it came down to,” added Walberg. “We go 25-4 and as a coach you feel disappointed because you didn’t achieve what you wanted to achieve. Most kids would give their right hand to be 25-4 but for us, the wins I count is when you go to Selland Arena and you win that championship. In my mind we are 0-1 because we didn’t do it.”

And for the No. 5 seeded Clovis North (18-11), the program that reached the 2016 Valley title game, they were bounced from the playoffs at No. 4 Liberty-Bakersfield 79-72 despite a game-high 26 points from senior Ben Avera, a three-year varsity player. In fact, only five players scored in the game, all seniors: Elijah Straughter 16, Dom Reyes and Taj Gill 12 and Chad Fugman 8.

The Broncos actually led by 11 points in the third quarter but couldn’t hold off the hard-charging Patriots. Liberty then traveled to No. 1 seeded Central (of the TRAC) and got thrashed 85-65, setting up the D-I title between the Grizzlies and Patriots at Selland Arena.

Clovis North eliminated Clovis (12-18) in the opening round, despite finding themselves down 21-18 after the first quarter. Avera led the way with 15 and Straughter 13. Clovis junior guard Anthony Martinez and senior Steven Porter each scored 11.

No. 6 seeded Buchanan (19-10) also saw their season come to a sudden end in a home overtime 74-72 loss to No. 11 Stockdale despite 23 points each from junior Spencer Heimerdinger and senior Tyree Leggett. The Bears had earlier defeated the Mustangs (13-16) 75-60 at home on Jan. 3.

And No. 8 Clovis East (14-14) lost to No. 9 Centennial 61-58 at home in the opening round.

But all was not lost in the TRAC, as league champion Central won their second consecutive Central Section Division 1 title on March 4 when they defeated Bakersfield 69-58 behind 18 points from Cam’Ron Wilson and 16 from Cashemine Williams, both juniors.

Former Clovis softball standout Courtney Diefel (Scott) was honored at a ceremony on Feb. 28, retiring her No. 4 after a stellar softball career that included two Valley championships at Clovis, an NCAA championship at Cal and now is the head coach at the University of Arkansas. Pictured here are Diefel’s parents Leslie and Ron Scott. (Photo by Mackenzie Emmett)

Clovis softball great Courtney Deifel (Scott) number retired

The legends of Clovis softball are many – from Amanda Scott to Jamie Southern – and now Courtney Diefel (Scott) is forever immortalized as her name and number were celebrated at a ceremony at the Cougars’ diamond on Feb. 28.

Every 10 years Clovis High retires a number, based mostly on their high school career but also their college performance, pro performance and overall contribution to the game of softball. The honors began in 1997 when Courtney’s sister Amanda Scott was elected, followed by Southern in 2007. Both were All-American pitchers.

Deifel was a two-time all-state player at Clovis, four time all-league winner and led her team to two Valley titles from 1996-1999 before becoming an All-American catcher at Cal-Berkeley where she led the team to four Women’s World Series appearances, including the 2002 national title. She played professionally, both in the NPF (NY/NJ Juggernauts, where she won another Championship) and in Japan (LeoPalace 21).

For Cougars’ head coach Mike Noel, Deifel was an easy choice.

“She was the kind of player, that if you needed something done; a play made in the field or a clutch hit, you hoped Courtney was the player involved,” said Noel who says their biggest on-field moment was her walk-off double in the bottom of the 7th to beat Woodbridge in the Championship game of the Tournament of Champions. “She was a great competitor, who never had a game she wasn’t totally into.”

Deifel was so versatile, coach Noel needed her to play shortstop, and she willingly did so, even though her best position was catcher.

She has been a fast riser in the college softball coaching ranks and was named the head coach of the University of Arkansas in 2015, considered the toughest softball conference in the nation. Before Arkansas she was the head coach at Maryland for one season.

She was unable to attend the ceremony due to her college coaching gig so stepping in her place was mother, Leslie, and father, Ron, who is the head baseball coach at Fresno City College

Deifel took to Twitter to offer up her thanks: “Thank you Clovis softball for this incredible honor. Wish I could’ve been there. Still so proud to be a Cougar and play for Coach Noel.”

Baseball is in the air

Let’s just get this out in the open right now – the Clovis area baseball teams in the TRAC are absolutely loaded this season. Buchanan is 6-0 and is the No. 1 team in the Cal-Hi Sports rankings and Clovis is No. 8 with a 6-0-1 record. Clovis North suffered an opening season loss to a very good Tulare Western team but has reeled off five-straight wins. Clovis West is 5-1 and has scored 10 or more runs three times. Clovis East is 3-2 and beat Tulare Western 11-1. So, yep, that’s some mighty fine baseball; 25-4-1 combined records in fact.

The headliner is Buchanan, the defending national champions anointed by USA Today, Baseball America and MaxPreps, led by the big senior position players catcher Zack Presno, shortstop Jamal O’Guinn and third baseman Quentin Selma. Anchoring an impressive one-two pitching staff are senior Hunter Reinke and Carson Olson. The Bears are ranked No. 1 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports and No. 2 in the nation by Baseball America.

However, the Bears were tested against a young and hungry Bullard team on Feb. 2, and were no-hit through six innings by Darren Jansen before rallying for a 3-2 win. Sophomore Brady Hormel led off with a double followed by a Selma walk. After a strikeout then the craziness began – a single up the middle by Matt McKinney plated Hormel but the throw from centerfield got by the Knights’ catcher allowing Selma to score and McKinney to advance to third. Sophomore JD Ortiz then won the game with a sacrifice fly to left.

Clovis North is riding the hot bat of sophomore outfielder Brock Jones (also a football standout), junior James Bell, and Brett Jensen both on the mound and at the plate. Senior Chase Compolongo is looking strong on the mound as well.   

Just wait until all these teams start to face each other when league starts on March 17. I. Can’t. Wait.

Buchanan and Clovis played in the championship game of the Coca-Cola Classic on March 6, just after deadline for the paper.