By Paul Meadors, Sports Editor
Let’s just get this out of the way first: the most competitive baseball league in the state may very well lie in our own back yard: the Tri-River Athletic Conference. Pitching, defense, tradition, timely hitting, fundamentals, superior coaching; the league has it all.
Consider the facts:
- Buchanan (10-0) is ranked No. 2 in the state, Clovis (11-0) No. 4 in Cal-Hi Sports with Clovis North (9-1-1) receiving consideration in top 20
- All six teams heading into Easter Break are a combined 45-12-2
- Since 2001 at least one TRAC team has been in the D-1 Central Section finals, winning 11 of the 15, including 2015 champion Buchanan
- Teams have registered a combined 11 shutouts and 13 one-run wins
- All six head coaches are a who’s who among the coaching elite with James Patrick at Clovis and sons Chris at Clovis North and Kevin at Clovis West, Tom Donald at Buchanan, Pat Waer at Clovis East and Jeff Prieto at Central.
The headliners in 2016? Let’s start with two of the best senior starting pitchers in the state in Grant Gambrell of Buchanan and Zac Whittaker of Clovis. Both have experience, both are gutsy and both worth the price of admission. And true to form, both pitchers threw shutout baseball in their team’s opening TRAC game on March 17; Gambrell giving up one hit, striking out six in five innings in beating Central 4-0 and Whittaker tossed a 13-strikeout no-hitter in their 1-0 win over Clovis East. They are sure to match up the week of May 3 when they play back-to-back games. Start making arrangements now to get a good seat.
But let’s not count out Clovis North, with perhaps the most well-rounded player in the league in second baseman Matt Frazier. The Broncos, winners of the 2013 Valley title are also off to a strong start to the season, losing only to Clovis 2-1 in the championship game of the Coca Cola Classic. So, that adds up to those top three teams combining for a record of 29-1-1. Who in the state can top that?
Clovis West, Clovis East and Central are all dangerous in their own way, proving once again that each team will have to bring their very best every single game.
We are in for quite a ride over the grueling 15-game league schedule that resumes on March 30. So, to whet your appetite until then here is a breakdown of every TRAC team.
Buchanan (10-0), Coach Tom Donald
Players to watch: P Grant Gambrell, OF Alex Peralta, 2B JT Arruda, P Quentin Selma, C Zach Presno
Quick hits: Last season Buchanan went on a roll the last third of the season winning eleven in a row and blasting Clovis 15-1 in the D-1 Valley title game. So, it would seems replacing seven starters from last year’s team would prove difficult. Not so fast, Buchanan is simply reloading and are the coach’s pick to win TRAC. Gambrell, who officially signed with Oregon State, features a fastball that tops 90 MPH and will be the team’s No. 1 starter and Presno, only a junior, has committed to Fresno State and is as good as they come behind the plate. Overall, they have no glaring weakness and will be a fun team to watch. JT Arruda, fresh of a successful soccer season has also committed to Fresno State.
Coach’s take: “I think this club has shown a lot of great progress during the course of our short season thus far. I’m really impressed with their ability to grind out wins. We are not a flashy club at all and this group has a lot more of a blue collar feel to it. Our seniors are finally starting to lead and it’s showing up in their attention to detail, keeping each other accountable and leading from the front whether they are a starter or not.”
Clovis (11-1), Coach James Patrick
Players to watch: LHP Zac Whittaker, SS Jeremy Garcia, 3B Johnny Wiltfang, OF/P Chet Allison, OF Connor Jorgensen, 1B Clayton Alexander
Quick hits: This team is anchored by three-year varsity starting pitcher Whittaker, a lefty that has the ability to throw any pitch in any count. He gives the Cougars a chance to win every time he takes the mound and is a fierce competitor, a trademark of a James Patrick coached team. The Cougars have won some tight games already this season – a sign their pitching and defense is legit. Jorgensen and Alexander are the big mashers in this lineup and Allison is finding a niche as a closer.
Coach’s take: “We are still trying to find our complete identity. We have not played the same lineup in consecutive games yet this year. I like that our guys are competing relentlessly and I most appreciate the teamwork they are developing.”
Clovis North (9-1-1), Coach Chris Patrick
Players to watch: P Brett Walker, P Michael Williams, P Justin Fuson, 2B Matt Frazier, INF James Bell, C Nick Nurcanyan
Quick hits: The Broncos feature a strong pitching staff that will keep them in games this season, as evidenced by their 9-1-1 record. Their offensive potential is strong but has yet to fully take off and when they do, they’ll be even more dangerous. The players are in place to challenge for a TRAC title, led by a do-everything player in Matt Frazier, an Arizona University recruit and pitcher Michael Williams, a lefty that has improved tremendously since last season. Brett Walker thew a complete game shutout in the team’s opening 7-0 TRAC win over Clovis West.
Coach’s take: “One thing we’ve done a better job of doing this year as opposed to last, is finding a way to win close games (minus the Clovis High loss). That is a direct reflection of how we have pitched this year. Our pitchers have been lights out all year, even battling through adversity when our defense has put them in tough spots.”
Clovis West (5-5), Coach Kevin Patrick
Players to watch: SS Ian Ross, P Nick Falco, INF Blake Schafer, OF Bobby Clark, C DJ Schramm, INF Evan Rocha.
Quick hits: The young Golden Eagles may not have the star power of Buchanan, Clovis and Clovis North but there’s little doubt they’ll be able to compete in every game. Coach Kevin Patrick instills in his teams to trust the process of what it takes to become an elite team and he likes what he sees so far. Ross, a returning all-TRAC performer provides leadership and Falco, a junior, has emerged as a pitcher. Sophomore catcher DJ Schramm has shown power potential as has Rocha.
Coach’s take: “Our team has shown that we can be tough to beat when we play to our capabilities. Some games we start four sophomores and 2-3 juniors, who are getting their first experience at the varsity level. There has been a bit of a learning curve, but I like the way we compete in practice and if we continue to grow as a team I’m confident we will be in the mix at the end.”
Clovis East (4-5-1), Coach Pat Waer
Players to watch: SS Danny Ramirez, P David Chavira, C Justin Thatcher
Quick hits: Yes, Clovis East took their lumps last season starting such a young team, and that can only translate to a more experienced and battle-tested team. Look no further than their TRAC opening season 1-0 loss to an undefeated Clovis team as a sign of their competitiveness. Starting pitcher David Chavira threw very well in that opening game of TRAC and may emerge as the team’s best pitcher. Coaches around the TRAC know how young and talented the Timberwolves are. Thatcher is one of the best catchers in the TRAC.
Coach’s take: “We are a more experienced team this season as we started three freshman and four sophomores last season so we return a majority of our at bats and innings. We are good enough this year to compete when we play well and our goal is to get better every day and compete for a championship.”
Central (7-4), Coach Jeff Prieto
Players to watch: P Justin Miller, OF Dylan Lewis
Quick hits: Gone is former pitching stud Colton Eastman (who’s currently 4-0 as a true freshman for Cal State Fullerton) but the Grizzlies are a more balanced team that won’t rely on a single player this season. Coach Jeff Prieto, who admits the TRAC is the best baseball conference in the state and quite possibly the nation, is excited about this season’s group of seniors. Outfielder Dylan Lewis is a beast with a ton of potential and hard-throwing Justin Miller will be a tough pitcher against TRAC opponents every time he takes the mound.
Coach’s take: “We are a lot more athletic than we have been in the past. Overall we have a lot better team speed and have the ability to drive the ball to the gaps and push the outfielders back a bit. Pitching has been our strength the past couple of years and we will be pretty good on the mound again this year.”