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June 6, 2014

ALL-STATE BASEBALL: Cullman’s Lovell named 5A Hitter of Year; accompanies Cleveland, Neal on 1st team

CULLMAN — Cullman baseball’s return to dominance is extending to awards season.

The Bearcats cleaned house on the Class 5A All-State Team released late Friday night, nearly three weeks since storming to the state title series. Freshman phenom Owen Lovell (outfield) was tabbed 5A Hitter of the Year and joined Lance Cleveland (first base) and Auston Neal (pitcher) on the first team.

The last local representative on the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s list was Hanceville’s Isaac Hardin, who was deemed an honorable mention catcher in 3A.

Cullman and state champ Spanish Fort each landed three players on the honorary squad, the Black and Gold’s highest total since 2011. Only one other team — Marbury — touted two.

This is the ninth consecutive year and 10th in the last 11 the Bearcats have had at least one first-team pick.

“I thought we had a lot of guys who had All-State type years,” Cullman coach Brent Patterson said. “It’s nice to get noticed and have some guys that turned some heads.”

Lovell actually began turning his teammates’ heads as an eighth-grader. He’d put on such a show during batting practice that “it was almost like you should buy a ticket at times.”

Lovell’s dinger demonstrations weren’t just reserved for drills this spring. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound spectacle shook off some early struggles and turned the corner at the Hoover Classic, quickly emerging as one of the state’s most feared hitters.

Lovell, who already has an offer from Alabama, left the building seven times from April 1-10. The last five were blasted in a four-game span against worthy opponents in Southside, Huntsville and Hartselle.

And then there’s the 26-game hitting streak Lovell carried into the state championship series. The right fielder’s stats during the run — five three-hit games, 10 two-hit games, 10 home runs and 48 RBIs — were mind-boggling, and so was Cullman’s 24-2 record.

“He basically carried us,” Patterson said. “He wasn’t doing it in the nine-hole. He was doing it with runners on base. He was doing it against good people. He was doing it in big spots.”

Lovell turned the late-season streak into some pretty nifty overall numbers that were impossible for the ASWA to ignore. By the end of the Bearcats’ 42-12 campaign, he was the proud owner of a .436 batting average, .904 slugging percentage, 29 doubles — a new program record and third all-time in the state — 14 home runs, 64 RBIs and eight stolen bases.

“He got on that string where every ball he hit, it seems like he was hitting doubles and home runs,” Patterson said. “By gosh, it was just something to sit back and admire. Really, I saw Ben Moore go on some tears like that, but for a freshman to do that, it was something special.”

Cleveland would’ve been the best hitter on the majority of prep squads in the state but just so happened to bat in front of — and be understandably overshadowed by — Cullman’s ninth-grade wonder.

The senior didn’t have a single varsity home run when he signed with Wallace State before the spring. After beefing up in the offseason, though, he wound up with five, none more important than an early shot in the semis versus Briarwood Christian. The lefty went back-to-back with Lovell twice and Cristian Martinez once.

Cleveland was the only Cullman kid with a hit on both days in Montgomery. He had at least one in nine of the team’s 10 postseason games.

Put it all together, and Cleveland batted .415, slugged .636, picked up 52 RBIs and 38 runs, and even swiped five bases. His 73 hits and 24 doubles are top-three marks in program history.

“Lance is just very steady. Every day, he’s the same. There’s no rollercoaster type deal,” Patterson said. “He’s a steady leader in the box. He’s a steady leader in the locker room and weight room. And I don’t think there’s any way he couldn’t have rubbed off and had an impact on Owen’s year for sure.”

Cleveland’s bat will surely be missed, but so will his glove. The adept defender was a pretty spectacular scooper who rarely let throws by and snared his fair share of screamers down the line.

“Every infielder has a great first baseman that can bail him out at times — and Lance bailed us out many times,” Patterson said. “We felt like he’s always been really good around the bag. And this year, he probably did take another jump.”

Good would’ve been a suitable descriptor for Neal’s regular season.

As for the playoffs? Brilliant.

Neal started his supreme postseason with a gutsy save against Athens before reeling off a trio of complete game shutouts the next three weeks. He took a state-record streak of scoreless innings tossed into the championship series that was ultimately snapped at 25 1/3.

Neal’s All-State moment came in the semifinals at Briarwood, specifically the third inning of the nightcap. The righty opened the frame with three walks walks in a row, only to come up clutch and close it by setting the next three batters down on strikes.

Patterson had a hard time putting his finger on the single intangible that made Neal “one of the biggest competitors I’ve ever been around in my life.” In the end, there were just too many to consider.

“His will to win was unmatched,” Patterson said. “You couldn’t help but be around him and see that spill over onto the next guy.”

Neal, who’s heading to Wallace State, was the epitome of a playoff hero. The hurler seamlessly took over as the team’s ace when Sam Huser was shelved with an arm injury following a first-round gem.

The late surge led to an 8-2 record with a save in 57 2/3 innings scattered over 14 appearances. Neal struck out 76 batters and sported a super-low earned run average (1.70) and WHIP (1.13).

“When Sam Huser went down, it was almost like, alright, well somebody’s button is going to be pushed,” Patterson said. “So Auston’s name was called, and he answered the bell. He was there, the opportunity was placed in front of him and he made the most of it.”

Hardin, the All-County Player of the Year, used his hulky frame and deceptive athleticism to make an impact at the plate, behind it and on the mound for Hanceville.

The junior showed out with a .404 batting average, .691 slugging percentage, five home runs, 46 RBIs, 15 doubles, a triple and 39 runs. He threw out 15 runners before teams stopped bothering to even try on the basepaths.

Hanceville was 21-11 and clinched its first county title and playoff berth since 2005.

See the entire 2014 All-State Baseball Team below:

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