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Cats able to fill graduation gaps

Clovis sophomore Eric Smith, seen diving for a ball during fly-ball drills at Wednesday’s practice, is in his first year of high school baseball in America after spending five years playing baseball in England. Photo by Eric Kluth

Clovis coach Shane Shallenberger knew he had holes to fill around a solid core of returning seniors if the Wildcats were going to return to the playoffs.

Some of the holes were plugged by expected sources, such as Matt Ulibarri and John Props taking over in the outfield, and sophomore Sean Cruce being shifted to second base.

Others were more of a surprise, such as sophomores Eric Smith and Jordan Moore.

All have played vital roles for the Wildcats (19-4), who have already earned their third-straight state playoff appearance with three games left in the season.

“I think we’re pretty solid one through nine,” Shallenberger said. “Anybody in our lineup can hit, and with the speed we have, we can create havoc on the bases once we get there.”

Smith played baseball in England the last five years, where America’s game takes a back seat to soccer and even cricket. He’s glad to be back stateside.

“I love it over here,” said Smith, whose father was transferred to Cannon Air Force Base. “There’s a lot more to do over here, and the food’s a lot better.”

With improved mechanics, he’s also doing a good job devouring varsity pitching, hitting over .400 in 14 at-bats as a part-time outfielder.

Moore, meanwhile, has returned to baseball after two seasons on the golf team.

He’s been swinging a hot bat lately while splitting time at designated hitter with junior Luke Gray.

“I’m just trying to take advantage of my chances,” said Moore, who is hitting .438 with two doubles and a home run.

Moore said he enjoys the team concept more than the individual nature of golf.

“I like being with the guys out here, plus I just love the game,” he said.

In Ulibarri and Props, the Wildcats have a pair of speedsters that anchor the bottom half of the lineup who can also cover a lot of ground in the outfield — plus they’ve combined to throw out 12 baserunners.

Ulibarri is a “throw-back” type player, according to Shallenberger.

“He’ll do whatever it takes to get on base,” the Clovis coach said.

And he has the welts to prove it after being plunked by pitches a team-high eight times. The sophomore center-fielder and left-handed hitter also has bunted for hits six times.

Props, who played junior varsity last season, also took some time off from baseball.

“I just missed the game,” said Props, a junior and the Wildcats’ starting quarterback last fall as well as being a key reserve on the basketball team. “I’ve played since I was about 4 in tee-ball.”

While Props and Ulibarri are starting for the first time, Cruce is a seasoned veteran even though he’s barely old enough to drive.

Second on the team in hitting at .478, Cruce said he’s more comfortable at second base after playing third as a freshman.

He said he’s also benefited from hitting between speedy leadoff hitter Mark Replogle and all-state shortstop Jason Seefeld.

“I’m a lot more relaxed this year,” said Cruce, who has grown two inches to 6-foot-1 and added about 10 to 15 pounds to his still slight frame. “I’m also seeing a lot more fastballs hitting in the No. 2 hole.”

Shallenberger said by improving his work ethic, Gray has earned playing time at designated hitter and has also turned in several solid outings in relief.

“I think they’ve all gotten better as the season has gone on,” Shallenberger said. “We should have a pretty solid nucleus returning next year.”