By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
If a stranger walked into Clear Lake High School softball or baseball practice, he might feel like he’s stepped into a foreign land.
The players have nicknames for each other and they communicate in a shorthand an outsider may not fully understand. Having lived together in the same small community for most of their lives, these players have formed a special bond.
It shows on the field.
Both Cardinals teams are the No. 1 seeds in the North Coast Section Division 5 playoffs, which continue Saturday at Clear Lake.
The boys kick off a doubleheader against eighth-seed Stuart Hall at 1 p.m., followed by the girls’ 4 p.m. game against No. 9 Valley Christian.
The boys are working on an undefeated season, 25-0 overall and 14-0 in the North Central division, while the girls are 17-6 overall and finished 13-2 in league.
“Our success is based on our chemistry,” said infielder Jake Egger, taking batting practice Friday. “Most of us have been playing together since we were six or seven years old.”
“We’ve played with or against each other since we were six or seven,” added pitcher-first baseman Matt Heller, finishing Egger’s thought.
“We’ve been warm-up partners since we were 10 years old,” Heller said, loading a tee for Egger to hit from.
With Saturday’s win-or-go-home game on the horizon, baseball assistant coaches Rick Moreno and Derek Brodnansky told the team there was nothing to worry about.
“There’s not too much to say. We’ve been doing this all year,” Moreno told his team’s seniors as they finished their final practice Friday afternoon before graduation that night. “We stopped coaching you about a month ago. We’re going through the motions — but they’re the right motions.”
Brodnansky said all the coaches knew this team of 11 seniors and four juniors would compete — the team was 13-1 in league last year — but no one had considered making an undefeated run this deep into the season.
“Who would have expected that? 25-0,” he said. “The only thing we did know was that this was a special group. But these kids have played together for so long. They know each other inside and out.”
“There’s not an ‘I’ guy on the team,” said Moreno, who won an NCS championship when he was on the team in the 1990s. “Their unity is something I’ve never seen.”
One example: Ace starting pitcher Jordan Chana is 10-0, the most wins in 15 years for a Cardinal pitcher.
Asked what he thinks about his personal performance, this is his response: “The team is 25-0.”
The softball team’s chemistry is similar, longtime coach Gary Pickle said.
There is no fast-pitch league in town, so the schools have set up their own development program with the middle school girls learning from the high schoolers.
So they, too, like the boys, end up competing together for several years and building a familiarity with each other’s talents.
In the past 23 years, the Clear Lake girls have failed to make the playoffs only once. In 2007, the team went 27-0 and was ranked second in the state, Pickle said.
“I have been blessed with a great group of kids and also a lot of good coaches,” he said.
The Cardinals started off slow this year, he said, but gelled when they got to league play and pitcher Rachel Wingler found her stride.
They are a team with speed and strength, who feed on competition, Pickle said.
They won a 13-inning marathon against Cloverdale, 2-1, that brought the team together, said sophomore Madison West.
“That was really the best moment in our season, because we pushed through,” Wingler said. “Everyone was confident. There was never a point that we thought we were going to lose.”
The older players enjoy mentoring the younger ones, Pickle said.
“We have a good mixture of mature and younger players,” he said. “The older ones take a little bit of pride in passing things on.”
You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @loriacarter.