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MONTGOMERY — Cullman High’s baseball team had been in this situation before.
So when Charles Henderson took a two-run lead late in game two of the Class 5A state championship series, the Bearcats didn’t panic.
And it’s a good thing they didn’t.
Jacob Smith hit a solo homer over the left-center-field fence in the bottom of the sixth, shifting the momentum toward the Cullman dugout.
Two innings later, Matt Drake slapped a double into left field to score Matthew Britton from second base, giving Cullman’s baseball program its second straight state championship with a 4-3 walk-off win over Hendrson.
Just moments after the ball left Drake’s bat, Cullman’s fans were on their feet. And when Britton crossed home plate, everyone that had been sitting in the Bearcats’ dugout was already on the field celebrating.
“I have to admit, I was nervous,” said Drake, who also was named MVP of the Class 5A state championship series for the second straight year. “I didn’t even know we had won it. I realized it was over right as I was rounding first.
“That was unbelievable.”
For Cullman’s players, winning the state championship in dramatic fashion was the perfect ending to what the players described as a “wild season.”
“I couldn’t think of a better way to end the season,” Cullman coach Bryan Bowen said. “We’ve had to overcome a lot. I can remember when this team was 10-11 and a lot of people were writing us off. But these guys showed resilience. They kept battling and got us back.”
While Drake’s double in the eighth inning may have won the game, it wasn’t the only clutch hit Cullman had.
The Bearcats had to rally in the bottom of the sixth and seventh just to tie the game.
After Smith cut the lead to one in the sixth inning, Cullman rallied again the bottom of the seventh.
Drake pushed a one-out single into shallow right field, and Kyle Johnson followed with a double down the right-field line that moved Ethan Hale — pinch running for Drake — to third base.
Two batters later, Smith hit a shallow fly ball into right-center field — just deep enough to score Hale, who had to dive over the catcher and slap home plate on his way down.
“That was a big inning,” said Johnson, who went 6-for-8 with five RBIs in the two-game series. “I was feeling a little bit of pressure when I came up to the plate. But I also knew their pitcher (Aaron Allen) was a little rattled. I just waited until I got a pitch to hit.”
Smith — who came up with two clutch RBIs late in the game — said he was just glad Henderson pitchers finally threw him something other than a curveball.
“They threw me five straight breaking balls,” Smith said. “I was just glad to see something different.
When I hit the home run, I just swung real hard and screamed real loud. That was probably the hardest homer I’ve ever hit.”
After winning game one, Bowen decided to go with the pitcher that had the most big-game experience: Drake.
As a sophomore, Drake suffered a loss to Stanhope-Elmore in the state finals. Last year, Drake was the winning pitcher game two of the state championship series against Bibb County.
Drake got off to a rocky start, giving up two runs in the first inning. But after that, the senior was lights out.
Pitching all eight innings, Drake held Henderson to only six hits while striking out six.
“This is the type of games you live for,” Drake said.
“I’ve pitched down here a bunch, and I’m still not used to this mound. I also didn’t have my best stuff today. I could only spot my curve and change, so I was basically just going with two pitches.”
Trailing 2-0 in the third inning, Cullman finally got on the scoreboard when Johnson drove in Britton — who was running for Haga — with an RBI single.
“There’s nothing else like this,” Johnson said. “This was everything I thought it would be.”
Henderson scored one run in the top of the sixth to take a 3-1 lead.
Drake led Cullman at the plater, going 3-for-5.
Johnson went 2-for-5, while Austin Golden, Josh Bell, Smith, Chris Fisher and Haga all had one hit each.
Download a high-resolution team photo.
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