They split the past two Central Section Division I baseball titles, advancing players widespread at the pro and major-college levels.
But despite losing that plethora of talent, here are Buchanan and Clovis again, ranked Nos. 6 and 7 nationally by MaxPreps and Nos. 1-2 in the Central Section by The Bee as featured teams in the 38-team Fresno Easter Baseball Classic that runs through Wednesday.
That’s common for the Bears and Cougars, who have won 12 of the past 21 section top-division championships.
12 Combined Central Section top-division baseball titles by Buchanan and Clovis in past 21 years
Buchanan, following a 29-4 season that closed with a 15-1 rout of 24-11 Clovis at Visalia’s Rawhide Ballpark, improved to 12-0 by opening the Classic with 6-2 and 1-0 wins over Hanford West and Woodcreek-Roseville.
In the come-from-behind victory over Hanford West, Grant Gambrell hit a two-run homer in a five-run sixth and Kyle McKenney gave up three hits and one earned run in five innings – matching his season innings total entering the morning game on the Bears’ field.
Buchanan, which finished Nos. 3 and 12 in state and national rankings last year, have six major college commits, featuring ace pitcher/first baseman Gambrell (Oregon State), after forwarding one professional player (Trenton Kemp, Red Sox) and 13 major college players in the past two seasons.
For all the dominant periods by the section’s most storied programs – like Bakersfield, Fresno and Roosevelt in the ’50s and ’60s, Hoover in the late ’60s, Bullard in the ’70s and ’80s, Hanford in the ’80s, Clovis in the past 20 years and Fowler in the past decade – no program in the 122-year history of section baseball can match Buchanan’s current three-year run as related specifically to the volume of players attracting college interest. Kemp had originally signed with Fresno State before turning pro.
Times have changed: Top players in the ’50s and ’60s typically played professionally instead of attending college. But to produce no fewer than 20 players with college ability in three years?
“I attribute that to our coaching at the lower levels, at Alta Sierra (Intermediate), freshman and JV,” said coach Tom Donald, who has won 78 percent of his games (420-120-4) and five section titles in 18 years at Buchanan, according to historian Bob Barnett. “They understand their roles and want the kids playing at a high level. There’s an expectation here to try and get better or the game will expose you at some point.
“We continually preach that you can’t leave one measure of the game behind.”
Clovis, two years after going 33-5 and finishing ranked Nos. 1 and 4 state and nation, improved to 13-0 by opening the Classic with a 8-1 and 5-1 wins over over Sanger and Redwood. Against Sanger, junior outfielder Connor Jorgensen went 3 for 3 and Connor Stevens gave up four hits while striking out seven in six innings. He arrived at the morning game having pitched only two innings.
The Cougars continue to march forward after losing the likes of Jake Gatewood (Brewers), McCarthy Tatum (Fresno State), Tevin Mitchell (UC Santa Barbara) and Preston Mott (UC San Diego) from the past two teams.
“Our kids know the expectations and certainly want to live up to those expectations,” said coach James Patrick, who has won 75 percent of his games (685-231-1) with eight section titles in 31 years – 29 at Clovis and two at Memorial. “They know the tradition. That’s built in when they play Clovis High baseball; it’s part of the deal.”
Clovis North, ranked third in the section, a D-I champion in 2013 and relatively new established power under Patrick’s son, Chris, moved to 11-1-1 with two wins at the Classic.
Every team is guaranteed four games in the tournament, which will close with a 7 p.m. championship game Wednesday at Clovis West.
Eleven Sac-Joaquin Section teams are in the field, including first-year entrant Bradshaw Christian-Sacramento, which is coming off five consecutive 20-win seasons. The Pride lost 2-0 to Clovis East in a late game.
Gambrell has taken The Bee Player of the Year lead at the season’s one-third mark.
30 Total wins against one loss by Buchanan, Clovis and Clovis North entering the Fresno Easter Classic
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-hander with a 92-94 mph fastball, entered the tournament with a 3-0 record, 0.41 ERA, 19 strikeouts in 17 innings and a .455 batting average with 12 RBIs.
“Oregon State is going to have to make a decision,” Donald says. “They recruited him as a two-way guy and we’ll see how it plays out. He has a big power arm with good secondary stuff, and is also a big target with good hands at first base. Further, he’s really grasped the whole leadership idea.”
Gambrell is on an apparent April 5 collision course with Clovis senior left-hander Zac Whittaker (4-0, 2.07) at the Cougars’ Lloyd Merriman Field.
Whittaker, a three-year varsity veteran, struck out 13 in beating Clovis East 1-0 Thursday with his second no-hitter of his career.
“He’s stubborn as can be and that can be a blessing and sometimes a curse,” Patrick said. “He doesn’t back down from a challenge. He’s never missed a start in two years. He loves getting out there and competing. He’ll go to a JC and then be a big-time prospect.”