With a pandemic-shortened Major League Baseball season finally about to start, we thought it might be a good time to revisit some Spring Branch baseball history…
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Spring Woods Tigers were a diamond juggernaut. You get a sense of the fear they inspired in their opponents from an online copy of the May 27, 1979 Baytown Sun.
In a pair of advance articles about the hometown Ross Sterling Rangers upcoming battle with the Tigers for the Region 3-4A championship, Sterling coach Ronnie Kluch seemed in awe of the Spring Woods pitching staff and their 30-2 record with an eye-popping Earned Run Average of 0.50.
You read that right — legendary Spring Woods coach Charlie Maiorana’s hurlers surrendered half a run per game. (Unearned runs enabled opponents to scratch out an average of one run per game total.)
That pitching staff was anchored by a devastating one-two punch at the top of the rotation.
Leading the way with a 15-1 record was 6’6” senior Rick Luecken. Maiorana told the Sun that pro scouts had told him Luecken already had a major league curveball, and Sterling’s scouts had clocked his fastball at 93 miles per hour.
“Bear in mind the Houston Astros J.R. Richard throws somewhere around 92 mph,” wrote the Sun’s Mike Mann, who also reported that Luecken was forecast as the top draft-eligible prospect in all of Texas for the 1979 Major League draft.
Now old-timers will probably know where I am going with this, but younger Spring Branch seamheads might not…There’s a bit of a plot twist here…
The second man in the Tigers rotation also achieved lasting fame in the game, especially in his hometown of Houston, and before going pro, he was a college All-American for his Texas college team. His first name begins and ends with an R.
That pitcher was….Rayner Noble, destined to become the winningest coach in University of Houston history. The lefty went 12-1 for the Tigers that year and was described as very heady on the mound and extremely athletic — when not on the mound, he excelled at the plate and in right field and led the basketball Tigers in scoring to boot.
So Luecken and Noble accounted for 27 of the Tigers’ 30 wins that year. What about the other three?
“The other three Tiger wins have been charged to Roger Clemens who is 3-0 but holds the school record for strikeouts in a game with 16.”
And that’s all we hear about Clemens, a junior that season, in either of the two fairly lengthy articles about the matchup. After Clemens got that drive-by name-check, the Sun went on to cite several names from the Tigers none-too-shabby line-up — catcher David Garrett, shortstop Johnny Comeaux, and third baseman David Edwards (son of former Astros catcher John Edwards) — as the team’s top sluggers.
“They’re tough,” said Sterling Coach Ronnie Kluch. “They’ve got a good baseball team and they’ve got two good pitchers. When you’ve got that, you’re going to be good.”
Two good pitchers…
But man, that is one heck of a high school pitching staff when a future seven-time Cy Young Award-winner is third man out, junior or no.
Epilogue: Luecken was indeed drafted first among Texas high schoolers in the first round of the 1979 draft but chose to pitch at Texas A&M instead. Eventually he did make it to the big leagues and pitched for the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays. As of 2018, he was living in the area and working as an offshore landman.
Noble toiled in the Astros farm system for a few years before joining the coaching ranks as an assistant. Noble led the Coogs from 1994 until 2010, taking UH to new heights on the diamond along the way.
Clemens you already know…
So who advanced from that diamond battle between the Baytown boys and the Gessner nine?
First, a little more bonus suspense.
The Sun called on a few area high school coaches to predict the outcome of their series against the Baytown club.
Here is what one of them had to say:
“Probably Sterling has as much chance to beat them as anyone in the state. From what we saw, Spring Woods pitchers are slightly tougher, though. They really have some powerful pitchers. It’s good that both teams are there, because we feel like they’re the best we’ve played. It’s just hard to adjust to the kind of pitching Spring Woods has, especially Luecken. In the major leagues you face that kind of pitching everyday, but in high school, you can’t adjust to it.”
Sadly, they did, and after ousting Spring Woods, Sterling went on to lose 1-0 to the Spring Lions in the state championship game on an unearned run.
Oh, and the name of that anonymous prognosticator?
That would be Scarborough coach Wayne Graham, who the following year would coach at Spring Branch High School.
The year after that, Graham hired on at San Jacinto College, where his pitching staff was anchored by….Spring Woods’s former third wheel Roger Clemens.
From San Jac, Graham would jump to Rice, where he hired Rayner Noble as an assistant, setting Noble up for his glory days to come across town. And in 2003, 20 years after Clemens led the Texas Longhorns to their fourth College World Series title, Graham’s Owls would also win it all, making them the only Rice team to win a championship in any sport, ever.