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June 15, 2014

THE TIMES' 2014 ALL-AREA BASEBALL TEAM: Lovell leads Cullman contingent as Player of Year

CULLMAN — And call Brent Patterson spoiled while you’re at it.

The Cullman High coach certainly won’t argue considering the crazy amount of talent the Bearcats touted at every position en route to this year’s Class 5A state championship series.

That talent is plastered all over The Times’ 2014 All-Area Baseball Team, with three Black and Gold players hogging the top individual awards and Patterson representing as Coach of the Year.

Freshman sensation Owen Lovell was the easy pick for Player of the Year, Lance Cleveland was the best choice for Hitter of the Year and fellow senior Auston Neal turned an electrifying playoff run into Pitcher of the Year honors.

The trio was accompanied on the All-Area squad by seven Cullman first-teamers. Hanceville, this year’s county champ, was next in line with three.

“Yeah, we were extremely spoiled,” Patterson said. “We’ve talked about it ourselves, and we definitely do feel spoiled.”

The coach has finally had time to truly reflect on Lovell’s loads of contributions as an elephantine ninth-grader in the month since the ’Cats spring came to an end. Among the feats for Patterson to process were 14 home runs, 29 doubles, 64 RBIs and, at one point, a 26-game hitting streak.

And that’s just at the plate.

Lovell flashed his arm with three assists in right field and a 4-1 record and 30 strikeouts on the mound. Lost in the limelight of his second-half offensive surge was a bounceback start against Pell City that began with seven hits and seven runs allowed in the first inning alone. The next eight frames told a much different story, however, as Lovell proceeded to strike out eight batters, allow just one additional hit and hang on for a crazy 8-7 victory.

Lovell’s lengthy streak carried Cullman into the state title series. During the outburst, he had 15 multi-hit outings, 10 home runs and 48 RBIs. More importantly, the Black and Gold were 24-2. They wound up 42-12 on the year.

“When you’re in the middle of it, you just know, holy cow, this guy’s good. You get out of the season, and my gosh, it starts to soak in what he did,” Patterson said. “He was a steady power threat. He hit every type of pitching. He threw guys out from the outfield. He won games on the mound.

“He did a little bit of everything to help us win.”

Lovell was rewarded handsomely for his on-field exploits this spring. He emerged from awards season as a Super All-State selection, the 5A Hitter of the Year and an All-State first-team outfielder.

At this point, Patterson said it’s getting hard to describe the program’s latest superstar, who’s already been offered by Alabama. The coach had no problem explaining why Lovell deserved to be the All-Area Player of the Year, though.

“Because he’s a legitimate five-tool guy,” Patterson said. “In high school, it doesn’t matter if he’s a freshman, a sixth-grader, a senior or whatever, he brings five tools to the game — and he used them. He wasn’t a look like Tarzan, play like Jane. He looks like Tarzan and sounds and plays like him.”

Cleveland already has his fair share of nicknames. The Puma. The President — or Grover, to be more precise.

Add Mr. Consistency to the mix.

Cleveland clubbed three doubles on Opening Day and stayed steady with the stick throughout, batting .415 with 52 RBIs, 73 hits and 24 doubles. The latter stats are top-three marks in program history.

One day after the trio of two-base knocks, Cleveland scorched a first-inning, two-strike single against Huntsville’s Whitt Davis, who Patterson called “maybe the best pitcher we saw all year.” The lefty also produced in Montgomery, tagging Spanish Fort’s ace for a single and its No. 2 option for a double. Cleveland had at least one hit in nine of Cullman’s 10 playoff bouts.

“He did it from Day 1 to the last day,” Patterson said. “The consistency that he brought, the leadership, just to be that guy in the heart of the lineup that you don’t really have to worry about.”

Cleveland’s recommitment to strength and conditioning after signing with Wallace State during the offseason paid dividends. The slugger traded in his zero career home runs for five, swiped five bases and went out as an All-State first-team first baseman.

Aware of the supreme talent that’s come through Cullman over the years, Patterson still felt safe calling Cleveland “one of the top-five hitters we’ve ever had.”

“I just really think he’s in that upper echelon,” the coach said. “He might not be a home run type guy, but wait and see. Right now, he’s still a baby. When he gets around 20 years old, and he starts getting man strong, that guy’s going to hammer balls. He’s got that body that he can be an ox.”

Remember when it was said earlier Lovell carried Cullman to the state title series?

Well, scratch that. Because Neal had plenty of room on his back for the Bearcats, too.

When regular season ace Sam Huser went down with an arm injury following a first-round gem, the senior swiftly stepped in and filled the void. Neal got comfortable during a gutsy save against Athens and then settled in for three straight complete game shutouts versus worthy opponents in Hartselle, Walker and Briarwood Christian. His streak of 25 1/3 scoreless innings slung set a new state record.

Patterson was particularly thrilled with Neal’s second-round masterpiece against Hartselle. The fireballer yielded just a single hit in a 10-0 triumph and retired the last 18 Tigers he faced, tallying all 11 strikeouts during the stretch.

“It was just phenomenal. The fact our backs were against the wall and he rose up,” Patterson said. “When his number was called, he was the guy that stood up and took advantage of it. In the biggest games we played, he threw quality innings.”

The coach chalked up Neal’s insane postseason to the All-State first-team pitcher’s unmatched will to win. The senior’s slider might’ve had a little something to do with it, too.

“Sitting over there watching it, you think, man, that’s a good one,” Patterson said. “But in our intersquads, our own hitters that I knew were pretty dang good hitters, were talking about how hard it was to see his slider. So we knew that was a good pitch for him. And because of the respect you had to give his slider, it made his fastball that much better.”

One could make a case Patterson had the world handed to him on a silver platter this season, but that would just be silly. Sure, he had massive amounts of talent at his disposal, but it takes a special kind of coach — and staff — to put it all together for a state runner-up result.

The Black and Gold started buying in when they won the Hoover Classic championship and were completely sold after sending Hartselle packing in the playoffs for the first time since Patterson took over the program in 2009.

“Patterson’s the type of coach who’s going to work you hard and get the best out of you,” Cleveland said. “He’s one of those guys that when he sees you succeed, he’s probably happier than you are. He just works his tail off at his job.”

Huser and Jesse Scott (pitchers), Cristian Martinez (catcher), Kolby Robinson and Samuel Murphree (infielders), and Cole Collins and Maison Goodwin (outfielders) rounded out Cullman’s first-teamers.

Isaac Hardin (catcher), a serious contender for Hitter of the Year, highlighted Hanceville’s All-Area representation, which included Hayden Loggins (pitcher) and Dant’e Reese (outfield).

Holly Pond’s Hunter Townson and Good Hope’s Nathan Doss (pitchers), Fairview’s Preston Moore and West Point’s Jordan McKenzie (infielders), and Vinemont’s Riley Foust (utility) snagged the last five first-team spots.

Collins, Hardin, Townson, Doss and Foust also cracked the top squad in 2013.

See the complete All-Area Baseball Team below.

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