By Dave Wagner
En route to reaching the state Class 3A baseball championship game last season, the Portales High Rams had a luxury a lot of teams would like, especially at their level — two quality pitchers.
On top of that, one (T.C. Nusser) was right-handed while the other (Seth Clabaugh) threw lefty.
Despite finishing second to Lovington in District 4-3A, they pitched the Rams to an 18-10 record and all the way to the state title game, where Santa Fe St. Michael’s scored five early runs and held on for a 5-3 win.
Assistant coach Arturo Ontiveros, an assistant for the past four years and a 1994 PHS graduate, has taken over head coaching duties for Greg Hill and said he feels pretty good about the team heading into Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. (MST) opener at Littlefield, Texas.
“Position-wise, we’re pretty solid,” Ontiveros said. “We’re just going to have to piece together a (pitching) staff. When you lose T.C. and Seth, it leaves a pretty big hole.”
A lot of the responsibility for bringing the staff along falls on senior catcher Tyler Rutherford, one of three returning starters.
“It’s now more up to me to learn how (opposing) batters are hitting the ball,” Rutherford said. “If the pitchers are (struggling), I have to be able to settle them down.”
Nusser, who also played third and first, and Clabaugh, who spent time at first and in the outfield when not pitching, were also important members of the batting order and their offensive punch will also be hard to replace.
Rutherford said the Rams set a goal of winning the state title last spring. He knows the road might be tougher this time around.
“This year we’re just real young,” he said. “We’ve only got five or six seniors on the team, and only three of us have started.
“Hopefully by district we’ll be really, really good. I’m still expecting us to get to state.”
Ontiveros will build around Rutherford, senior first baseman Jacob Lopez and sophomore second baseman Mario Salazar, all starters last season. Salazar, though, will have to pick up at least some of the pitching slack along with junior left-hander Justin Gilchrist, a transfer from Vernon, Texas.
Rutherford also should see some time on the mound, and possibly in the outfield. His backup behind the plate is junior Lynn Pinedo.
Junior Sammy Hightower is at third base, but will move to second when Salazar pitches with senior Darrin Stroik taking over at third. Junior Jordan Obenhaus backs up Lopez at first, and will also be used as a designated hitter.
Senior Eric Ornelas, a utilityman last season, has taken off about 30 pounds in the last year and will be the shortstop, Ontiveros said.
The outfield positions are up for grabs. Ontiveros listed about eight candidates, and said nothing is set at this point.
“We’re trying to find spots for some people,” he said. “But pitching’s the No. 1 thing. If you have a good No. 1 (starter) and a decent No. 2, it can take you a long way.”
Ontiveros said Lovington and New Mexico Military, the other top teams in the district, also lost key pitchers to graduation and that could leave the district picture wide open.
26 — at Littlefield, Texas (1), 3:30 p.m.
3-5 — at Littlefield tournament, TBA; 11 — Eunice (2), 4 p.m.; 17-19 — at Silver City tournament, TBA; 21 — at Lubbock Christian (2), 4 p.m.; 25 — at Levelland, Texas (1), 6 p.m.; 26 — Las Vegas Robertson (2), 1 p.m.
9 — Ruidoso (2), 11 a.m.-x; 12 — at New Mexico Military (2), 4 p.m.-x; 16 — Lovington (2), 1 p.m.-x; 23 — at Ruidoso (2), 11 a.m.-x; 26 — New Mexico Military (2), 4 p.m.-x; 30 — at Lovington (2), 1 p.m.-x.
All Times Mountain. x-Denotes District 4-3A games.