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Bellaire focused on ending title drought

BELLAIRE, Texas -- It's game day for the Bellaire High (Texas) Cardinals baseball team. Which, given the emphasis coach Rocky Manuel puts on practice, can be almost something of a relief.

"It's rough, but it's fun, because he's going to push you to the limit every day," senior first baseman Trace Knoblauch said. "You've got to be able to bend and not break, one of his sayings."

The Cardinals aren't much on breaking. They headed into the last weeks of the regular season with a 19-1 record and appear to have everything needed to return to the four-team UIL Class 5A state tournament in Austin in June. The top five hitters in their lineup all were better than .400, and their three primary pitchers were averaging better than a strikeout per inning.

Bellaire has won seven UIL state baseball titles, the most of any school. Alums include current and former big leaguers Chris Young of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chuck Knoblauch (Trace's uncle), Bubba Crosby, Jose Cruz Jr. and Jeff DaVanon. Even San Diego Padres owner John Moores.

One of the Houston school district's baseball facilities is named Ray Knoblauch Field ("The Blauch"), named for the patriarch of the baseball family and a four-time Bellaire state-championship coach.

"There's a big tradition here," said senior second baseman Andrew Burns, whose older brother also played for the Cardinals. "I look forward to putting more toward that tradition and winning a state championship."

Said senior catcher Sam Ofield: "We really don't shift gears from regular season into the playoffs. We're going full blown every single game like it's our last. You hold nothing back when you come out to play."

Such is the mindset under Manuel, who earned all-state football honors when he was a three-sport high school athlete in Michigan. He holds nothing back, whether it's praising his team (he once called it the Notre Dame of high school baseball) or deciding how the Cardinals are going to practice.

Given his thirst for pitching and defense ("It sounds like a joke, but we've never lost a shutout," he said), Manuel, in his 19th year as Bellaire's coach, delights in putting his players through what he calls meticulously organized team defensive drills they can't replicate on their own.

"It's hard to turn double plays when you're taking ground balls by yourself," Manuel said. "Or it's hard to work on cutoffs and relays when there's no outfield throwing you the balls. You can take fly balls on your own and ground balls on your own, so we work a lot on team stuff."

In his "corner office" -- windows on two sides face Bellaire's baseball practice complex -- Manuel opens a file cabinet and pulls out a manila folder bulging with white sheets of paper.

"These are all practice plans," he said. "This is second base. Four-corner drills, slow rollers, bad hops, double-play sets, pop-up drills. We did this on … what's that say, '04?

"This thing goes all the way back. We've kind of revised it. All the way back … there's '92; I started in '91.

"I just keep 'em to see where I'm at. 'Where's my club at this point?' And I can look at a practice plan and see."

Senior Sam Ofield described a relay drill, in which the sequence of throws goes from first to third to short to second. But there's a little more to it.

"Everybody's rotating in and out," he said. "Two or three balls in the air at one time."

The Cardinals last won a state championship in 1999, and maybe only at Bellaire could 10 years between UIL titles be described as a drought. Bellaire opened in 1955 in the small municipality located in southwest Houston. Since it won its first title in 1960, the school had never gone this long without winning again.

The '08 Cardinals rallied back during multiple best-of-three playoff series to reach Austin. But the state tournament is one and done, and Bellaire lost its semifinal to Carroll (Southlake) 7-1 to finish with a record of 39-9.

This year's team again has a deep starting rotation. Senior right-hander Tyler Duffey has signed with Rice, not far from Bellaire. Next is sophomore lefty Toller Boardman, who Manuel said recently became the earliest commitment to the University of Texas. And there's junior righty Kyle Chaskin, who Manuel said already has an offer from the University of Houston.

Trace Knoblauch is deciding between Cornell and Indiana for his baseball future. Senior leadoff man Jarrett Higgins, the latest in a long line of quality center fielders, will play at nearby two-year San Jacinto College. Second baseman Burns is headed to two-year Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas. Ofield is headed to Point Loma Nazarene in California. Junior shortstop Alex Silver has committed to Indiana.

But the UIL playoff format doesn't always allow a team like Bellaire to take advantage of its depth. In each round, a coach can request to play just one game instead of a short series. If the other coach wants a series, a coin flip determines which will be used.

That, Manuel said, is at least better than when the UIL rule stated a coach asking to play one automatically got his way.

"I've been beat because I might have three or four really good pitchers, maybe five, but the other team's got one really great pitcher," he said. "At least make it a flip. Give me a fighting chance."

The 1999 team, featuring Young, went 38-2 and won the title by defeating Duncanville 13-2 in a game ended in five innings by the 10-run mercy rule.

Higgins has an older brother who played against the '99 Cardinals. "They were animals," he said.

This year's Cardinals have lost only to District 20-5A rival Westside (Houston), 5-2 on March 27, when Duffey allowed three solo home runs and Bellaire was four-hit by Daniel Mengden. They're scheduled to meet again Friday. Bellaire beat Westside in last year's Region III final.

Manuel hesitates to compare this team to the 1999 champions or his '94 champs.

"In 32, 33 years in this business, I stop comparing things. What the '99 team did is in the books," he said. "I was a little worried about this team early. Last year, we had the same nucleus of players and got hot at the right time and played real well. We have seven, eight starters back, and I was wondering, 'Did we achieve those goals because we got hot at the right time? Do we really have the talent out here that I think I have?'

"I think the kids proved me right. But we still have to play well to get better."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.