Cats, West Mesa meet for berth in 5A finals

Clovis sophomore Matt Ulibarri takes batting practice Wednesday at Bell Park. Ulibarri and the rest of the Wildcats take on West Mesa in today’s Class 5A semifinal in Albuquerque. Photo by Eric Kluth

By Dave Wagner

After seeing only limited mound duty for the Clovis High baseball team before this spring, senior Richard Urban has pitched in some big games lately for the Wildcats.

He won a 3-2 decision over Eldorado and lost a 3-2 verdict against Carlsbad in District 4-5A clashes. Last weekend, he pitched into the sixth as the Cats built a 6-0, fourth-inning lead and held on to beat Las Cruces Mayfield 8-7 in regional play and advance to the Class 5A state tournament.

Now he’s expected to get the starting nod today when CHS takes on West Mesa in an 11 a.m. semifinal at Isotopes Park, the home of the Triple-A Albuquerque farm club of the Florida Marlins.

“I was a little nervous today,” Urban (9-1) admitted on Wednesday as the Cats had their final Bell Park workout before heading out Thursday morning. “But I think by the time the game comes, I’m going to think of it as just another game.”

Truth be told, it’s anything but that for both teams. After losing in the regional round to eventual state finalists each of the past two seasons, Clovis (22-5) got over that hurdle at Mayfield.

“We finally proved we could get past regionals,” Urban said. “It just feels good to know we’re going to the state tournament.”

West Mesa (18-7-1) captured the District 1-5A championship, the school’s first district crown since 1974. The Mustangs pounded Del Norte 9-1 in the regional round, avenging an early-season 4-3 loss to the Knights.

“It’s going to be a fun game for both teams to play at Isotopes Park,” fourth-year West Mesa coach Paul Chavez said. “We rely on good pitching and good defense, and we hit the ball pretty well. But all teams that get this far are playing their best baseball.

“We feel pretty good about where we are.”

The other semifinal matches defending champion La Cueva (26-0), author of a 56-game winning streak, against Las Cruces (19-6) at 8 a.m. Saturday’s finals will pit the Friday losers for third place at 11 a.m. at the University of New Mexico and the Friday winners for the championship at 2 p.m. at Isotopes Park.

Third-year CHS coach Shane Shallenberger has tried to create an upbeat mindset, convincing his players they belong with the state’s elite.

“The kids didn’t believe we shouldn’t be in the final four, and I didn’t believe that either,” Shallenberger said. “We’ve been in the regional three years now, and it just took us that long to get past that.

“Both us and West Mesa are in a situation where we’re excited to be there.”

The Cats rocked Mayfield left-hander Frankie Duran in last week’s regional clash, pounding him for 11 of their 15 hits in five-plus innings. They’ll get another solid lefty this time in senior Richard Nicasio (6-1).

Nicasio was the winning pitcher against Del Norte in the regional round. Also a center fielder, he’s one of the team’s better hitters at .471 with five homers and 30 runs batted in.
“He throws hard, and has good stuff,” Chavez said. “He’s an experienced pitcher; he’s been a varsity baseball player for four years, and he’s pitched in big games before.”

Shallenberger said close games like the one against Mayfield can prove beneficial.

“I think you learn a lot from close games,” he said. “If you can win them, it always helps you down the road.”

Class 5A state tournament
Friday’s semifinals
La Cueva vs. Las Cruces, 8 a.m.
Clovis vs. West Mesa, 11 a.m.
Saturday’s finals
At Isotopes Park
Semifinal round winners, 2 p.m.
Third Place
At UNM Field
Semifinal round losers, 11 a.m.