By Dave Wagner
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of five stories highlighting the top Portales-area sports stories of the year.
Coming into the 2004 season, the Portales High baseball program had never won a Class 3A state championship.
With the schedule winding down, that didn’t appear likely to change.
The Rams lost their final District 4-3A doubleheader to Lovington in early May, giving the Wildcats the district title and putting the Rams’ hopes of even making the postseason in serious jeopardy.
Portales needed a Lovington sweep over New Mexico Military Institute, in a best-case senario, or at least a split to force a playoff game against the Colts for the second of two postseason berths from the district.
They got the latter, which meant that the Rams and NMMI would have a play-in game at Hobbs.
Coach Greg Hill was just grateful for the chance to keep playing.
“Second chances don’t come around too often,” he said. “You don’t always get them, so take advantage when you do. Every out, every at-bat — they’re all precious.”
The Rams did take advantage, outlasting NMMI 13-10 with the help of home runs from seniors Seth Clabaugh and Kevin Cheatham and setting the stage for a remarkable postseason run.
From Hobbs, the team continued on to Bayard in western New Mexico to face Cobre two days later in a regional game, creating a three-day round trip of more than 850 miles. Portales routed the Indians 11-2 behind six extra base hits and senior T.C. Nusser’s two-hit pitching performance to earn the school’s first state tournament berth since 1997, when the Rams lost to Cobre in the championship game.
“It was just a matter of me not letting the guys down because I pitched bad,” Nusser said. “It’s easy to pitch when the defense is playing well behind you.
“It’s also better when you score early and get the lead.”
Portales took a 17-9 record into its state semifinal game against Raton and rode the left-handed slants of Clabaugh to a 4-2 win. Clabaugh overcame some control problems to strike out 15 and toss a six-hitter.
Suddenly, they were playing for all the marbles.
“At one point in time we didn’t even know if we were going to make it,” Hill said. “We had two practices last week not knowing if they were for this year or next year.”
The dream ended in the finals against defending champion St. Michael’s, which opened a 5-0 lead in the first three innings and held off the Rams 5-3.
Portales outhit the Horsemen 11-7, but stranded 10 runners — including seven in scoring position.
“We had a little trouble hitting with runners on base …” Hill said. “But we played hard. Sometimes the team’s better than you, sometimes the ball rolls the wrong way, sometimes you don’t hit with runners in scoring position.”