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March 31, 2014

PREP BASEBALL: Cats shift focus from Hoover Classic to state title run

CULLMAN — For months now, Cole Collins has tried to tell anyone who’ll listen this is the best Cullman baseball team he’s been a part of.

The junior believes, from top to bottom, the 2014 Bearcats are stacked with above-average hitters, a stark contrast from the three to four the program has touted each of the past couple springs.

Lastly, Collins contends that even without Keegan Thompson (the state’s reigning Mr. Baseball who’s taking Auburn University and the SEC by storm) or Jordan Guthrie (a fellow college freshman at Snead State), these Black and Gold boys are simply better, as a whole, than their recent predecessors.

And, as crazy as all that sounds, Collins is probably right.

Class 5A No. 3 Cullman (24-8) enters Tuesday’s area series at West Point with wins in 16 of their last 17 games, including six out of seven en route to last week’s Hoover Classic crown. Clay Krout (RBI single) and Collins (scored on an error after a bases-clearing triple) helped head a two-out rally in the sixth inning of the championship to turn a 4-3 deficit into an eventual 10-4 triumph against Spain Park.

The Bearcat celebration following the final pitch was one to behold. Collins and Co. just don’t want it to be the last they experience come late May. In fact, the goofy outfielder went so far to call the spring break tourney title “just a little warm-up.”

“That dogpile would be much sweeter if it was for a state championship,” said Collins, unable to contain a grin at the thought. “But it was a good step in the right direction. Hopefully we can come out here and just keep on getting better and go win a state championship. That’s been our main goal since Day 1.”

The Black and Gold offense has received loads of attention lately — and rightfully so — but coach Brent Patterson is quick to point out his pitchers and defenders have also played a large part in the program’s success up to this point.

Sam Huser (5-0, one save), Noah Fondren (4-0, one save) and Owen Lovell (4-1) have led a strong contingent of consistent arms, while the team’s abundance of depth at nearly every position has kept the internal competition fiercer than ever.

Toss in the offensive onslaught, and Patterson is looking at one pretty sound squad.

“When you pitch it and defend it, you’re going to have a chance to win every game,” the coach said. “Our lineup’s deeper than it has been before, so we’ve got more guys who can go up there and give us a shot.”

Collins was on a very similar page.

“We believe we have the best defense in the state, and our offense is even better than our defense,” he said. “So as long as our pitchers throw strikes, we feel very, very good about this team.”

Despite the rapid improvement since Opening Day, Patterson still feels his club has “a long way to go before we’re as good as we need to be to have a chance to win it all.” He does believe Cullman is getting closer, though, considering the variety of ways the kids have “learned to win” as the season’s progressed.

Squandered leads have given way to victories in pitchers’ duels, close contests where they’ve had to lean on defense, and even the erasing and overcoming of seven-run deficits in the first inning.

It’s nice the Cats were able to put it all together in Hoover. However, if they slow their roll at any point on the road to Montgomery, Patterson is well aware the team’s efforts will all be for naught.

“I love the fact we won the tournament,” he said. “But if we lose in the first or second round (of the playoffs), nobody’s going to give a rip about that tournament anymore.”

The Black and Gold are talent-laden in their senior, junior and sophomore classes. Yet, there are three freshmen — Lovell, Fondren and Carter Bowen — who’ve given Patterson and his staff reason to believe the program can stay prominent for many years to come.

And don’t forget call-up Jacob Heatherly, another young’un, who hurled the last two innings of last Thursday’s title tilt to earn the decision.

Lovell, a 6’3.5”, 210-pound ninth-grader, has held his own on the mound and at the plate, leading the team in home runs (four), doubles (16) and slugging percentage (.674), while coming a close second to upperclassmen Lance Cleveland, a Wallace State signee, in batting average (.412 to .370) and RBIs (28 to 27).

Though Lovell called himself “just a freshman,” he said age doesn’t seem to mean much to any of his teammates. All that does is securing the squad’s first state title since 2008 and fourth overall since 2002.

 “I just go out there like I’m just another baseball player,” Lovell said. “To go to state, of course, is everybody’s goal. We just want to get closer as a team and succeed together.”

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