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May 13, 2014

PREP BASEBALL: Lovell, Neal taking lengthy streaks into Class 5A championship vs. Spanish Fort

CULLMAN — It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the astronomical stats Cullman has churned out on its way to this week’s Class 5A state title series against Spanish Fort.

The Bearcats have some pretty impressive team numbers — like their combined .330 batting average and 2.20 earned run average — but there are a few individual figures from Owen Lovell and Auston Neal that’ve been a bit more mind-blowing than the rest.

Not only does Lovell have 14 home runs and 29 doubles — the latter is a new program record and two back of tying the state’s top mark — but the freshman is the proud owner of a 26-game hitting streak. The slugger has been practically unstoppable during the seven-week stretch, breaking through for five three-hit games, 10 two-hit games, 10 home runs and 48 of his 64 total RBIs.

Cullman, not so coincidentally, has been 24-2 since the last time Lovell went hitless, an 0-for-3 showing in an 8-1 loss to Northridge all the way back on March 24.

“He’s been the picture of consistency,” Bearcat coach Brent Patterson said of Lovell, who’s batting .450 this spring. “It’s come to the point where he gets in the box and you just expect good things to happen. You see guys go through a week or two where they get hot and they see everything, but to do what he’s done is pretty dang special.”

Lovell, already the recipient of offers from Alabama and Mississippi State, will be the last kid to ooh and ahh over his own accomplishments. He’d love for the streak to reach 28 games — or 29 if the series goes the distance — but would much rather head home from Montgomery with the program’s first blue map since 2008.

“As long as I can help my team out, help us win, that’s all I really worry about,” Lovell said.

After listening to Lovell’s long list of statistics during the 26-game streak, Neal could only shake his head in amazement. The senior expressed pride in his freshman counterpart, especially after the youngster’s brief struggles at the beginning of the year.

“He kept trusting what coach said, started making adjustments and that’s when he saw unbelievable improvement,” Neal said. “Now you see how good he can be and how good he really is.”

Want to talk about good? There might actually be a better word to describe Neal’s recent stretch of success — dominant.

The three-sport student-athlete slung his third straight complete game shutout Saturday night at Briarwood Christian, extending a streak of scoreless innings tossed to 25. According to the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s website, that’s three more than thrown by Enterprise’s Seth McWaters, the previous state record-holder.

Neal’s outing was punctuated by a gutsy effort in the third inning of Saturday’s nightcap. After opening the frame with three straight walks, the senior reset his mental approach, bared down and set the next three batters down on strikes to leave the bases loaded.

“He’s so confident. He’s so competitive. But there’s no fear in him whatsoever,” Patterson said of Neal. “He wants to win for us as bad as he wants to win for him because he wants the best for Cullman High School and Cullman baseball. You want guys like that to have success.”

Of Neal’s 25 scoreless innings in a row, 21 have come in the postseason, where he’s 3-0 — the hurler is 8-1 overall — with a save. The fireballer’s turned on the heat in the playoffs, too, picking up 44 of his 73 total strikeouts through the first four rounds.

To top it off, all three of Neal’s postseason starts have come in place of injured ace Sam Huser, who’s been kept off the mound since shutting down Athens in Game 2 of Cullman’s opening series.

“When Sam went down, he really stepped up,” Lovell said of Neal. “He really helped us get through these games. It’s really amazing.”

Neal is at the point in his prep career where he wants to go out with his complete game shutout and scoreless inning streaks intact. He’s well aware that stretching the latter to 32 would move his team one step closer to achieving their ultimate goal.

“If that’s what it takes to get it, then I’m all down for it,” Neal said.

Cullman and Spanish Fort will get going Friday at 4 p.m. at Paterson Field in Montgomery. Riverwalk Stadium will be the site of a Saturday doubleheader, if necessary, starting at 10 a.m.

 

% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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