It’s been a long time since Clinton was a player on the New York City high school baseball scene.
While programs like Monroe in the Bronx and George Washington in Washington Heights dominate the baseball landscape year in and year out, the Clinton program has been living in the shadows.
But not any longer.
In his third season at the Governors’ helm, Matthew Keller has transformed the Clinton program into a legitimate contender, and — Keller hopes — a destination for talented players in the future.
“We’ve been rebuilding the past couple of years, and then this year finally turned out well,” Keller said. “We’re happy with the results. We wish we could have gotten a couple of more wins and got a few more games in, but unfortunately the weather played a role in that.”
While the weather was abysmal this season, the same can no longer be said about the Governors, who finished the regular season at 9-5. This year alone, in one of the tougher divisions in the city, Clinton swept the season series from a strong Luperon High School team while splitting the season series with traditional powers Walton and George Washington.
Yes, that George Washington.
It was something that even shocked Bob Pertsas, the Public School Athletic League commissioner.
“When we beat GW, the commissioner called me and said, ‘I can’t remember the last time a Clinton team beat GW,’” Keller said. “That was an exciting win for us. Then splitting with Walton was great. I had not beaten Walton in my three years here, so that was big for us.”
Clinton is no longer taking a back seat to anyone in a loaded AAA Northwestern Division.
“I thought we had a pretty good team coming into the season,” Keller said. “It’s basically the same team we had last year. We only lost three or four seniors. But we weren’t sure what kind of pitching we were going to have. We knew we had the position players and the lineup to compete. But pitching was a question. “Lucky for us Jeffry (Pena) and Usher (Valdez) were our two top pitchers this year, and they dominated for us.”
The Governors were tested in many close games this season with eight contests decided by two runs or less, and five by a single run. Clinton went 4-4 in those games, including a 1-0 loss to Walton in the final game of the regular season.
“The kids had been in my system for the past three years so they understood how we want to do things, and we put it all together,” Keller said. “I think we have one of the tougher divisions in the city with four teams having winning records. So where we’ve come from my first year to this year is very exciting. Not just for myself, but for the program as well.”
But it’s really more about the kids than it is for the coach, Keller said. “This is special for them, and it’s nice that they’re being rewarded for all the hard work they’ve put in all year.”
With only eight seniors on its 23-man roster, is this the start of a long run of baseball success at Clinton?
“Hopefully,” Keller said. “Unfortunately we don’t have a JV program like a lot of the top schools like Monroe and GW. So our plan is to bring as many young guys into the program as we can and build a program that could sustain for the next three of four years in order to compete with the Monroes and the GWs.”
And, in the process, give Monroe, GW and the other established programs some competition for area talent.
“When middle schoolers are looking for a high school to go to, I hope they will look at Clinton, and not just pass it by and go to GW, Monroe or Walton,” Keller said. “This has been a good stepping-stone year for us.”
The next step now will be the PSAL playoffs, which got underway this week. Clinton was set to host Taft Wednesday afternoon in a game played after the newspaper went to press.
“We have two of the better pitchers in our league and maybe in the city the way they’ve been pitching all year,” Keller said. “We just got to come out and play like we’ve been playing all year.
“We’re confident in both Jeffry and Usher. They have been the workhorses for us this year. We’ve been riding them in almost every game, and it’s been working. We’re always confident with them on the mound.”