Huskies’ Clifford steps down from baseball post

CADIZ – Thursday wasn’t the best day Justin Clifford has had during his career at Harrison Central.

It was with great regret that Clifford called a team meeting of his baseball players and informed them that he would no longer be their coach after spending the prior two seasons in helping to rebuild the Huskies.

“There had been speculation and I’d had a lot of people asking me about it, so I wanted to be up front with the kids and tell them to their face,” Clifford said.

Since the Huskies ended last season at the Division II State Baseball Tournament in Columbus, Clifford accepted a job as ‘Dean of Students’ at Harrison Central High School.

Thus, the Harrison Hills School district wasn’t keen on the idea of him coaching two sports.

“They had kind of said when I was taking (dean of students) job that it would be a lot on my plate with the additional duties,” Clifford said. “Do I think I could have it handled it? Yes, because until I failed, I wasn’t going to say I couldn’t do it. Would it have been tough? Yes.”

So the administration basically told him he had to either pick coaching basketball, a position that he’s held for now five years, or the baseball program, which he led to Columbus in Division II last spring.

“I am a basketball guy,” Clifford said. “Not that I didn’t love baseball or enjoy every minute of coaching it, but basketball is my passion. Basically, I had to make a life decision in this career move. The school has given me and my family every opportunity and I have nothing but nice things to say about them.”

The St. Clairsville High and Muskingum College product is remaining as the boys’ basketball coach.

Clifford was approached by then principal Mark Kowalski about the baseball job and was basically talked into taking the post. He was inheriting a team that had struggled as a youth movement had ensued.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Clifford said. “I wasn’t the first guy to jump on board about coaching, but once I took the job, I put 100 percent into it.”

During his first season, the Huskies finished right around .500 and lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to Edison in the OVAC 4A semifinals.

With basically every player back in 2013, the Huskies caught lightning in a bottle in winning the OVAC 4A title and then adding sectional, district and regional titles to the trophy collection.

At the state tournament, the Huskies were beaten by Plain City Jonathan Alder, 11-1 and finished with a 23-8 record.

The Huskies had flirted with danger multiple times in the tournament. They outlasted Carrollton, 8-7 in 12 innings and then dispatched Dover, 6-2 to reach the regional. In Zanesville, Harrison blanked Vincent Warren, 3-0.

The Huskies rallied from seven runs down and eliminated Waverly on a balk to reach the state tournament.

“You can’t make stuff like that up,” Clifford offered. “It’s stuff like that you don’t appreciate it for a few months or even years down the road. The kids will be talking about that season even when they’re my age.”

Obviously, Clifford brought firey approach and intensity to the Huskies that they’d lacked, but he credits the players. Guys like Rashaen Mitchell, Nick Pelegreen, Drew Horn and countless others for getting the job done.

“The saying ‘you don’t win the Kentucky Derby on a donkey,’ was true of this team,” Clifford said. “The kids were talented and they never quit. When you have both of those, it works in your favor.”

Clifford also had high praise for his coaching staff.

“The program won’t change or miss a beat because my coaching staff was definitely more of the baseball Xs and Os guys than I was,” Clifford said. “They were just a fantastic group of guys and I think they’ll actually be better off without me.”

Clifford won’t be a stranger this spring. He plans on spending many afternoons around the diamond, but his vantage point will be in the stands, rather than the dugout.

“I told the kids I’ll be there number one fan,” Clifford said. “I don’t want to stick my nose in, but I’ll be there rooting them on.”