By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Don’t call this year’s Hanceville baseball team the underdog.
Or do — and then watch them do everything in their power to prove you wrong.
The Purple and Gold capped off a perfect week on their home field Saturday, setting aside West Point with a 7-2 triumph to claim the 2014 Cullman County Tournament championship.
Isaac Hardin got Ryder Jones to ground the ball to shortstop, Austin Coker fired it to first base and Keith Twitty safely secured it in his glove for the final out. Like that, Hanceville was left to celebrate its first county crown since 2005.
After nine years of taking their lumps, the Dawgs couldn’t wait any longer to hand out some of their own.
“Keith always says, ‘This ain’t your big brothers’ Hanceville team anymore,’” coach Michael Chandler recalled moments after the big win. “We’ve seen all these guys beat us and beat us, and then they graduated and now it’s our turn. It’s just great to see.”
Twitty, widely considered the team captain, was overjoyed to help the program end its lengthy drought. The senior said the title didn’t come without a lot of hard work, as well as a hearty helping of motivation from naysayers.
“Always everybody looking down on us, not giving us a chance, but we always knew we were going to be a team to reckon with, and we showed it today,” Twitty said. “We feel like we outwork everybody in the county, and that’s why we’re the best team in the county.”
Chandler drilled it into his players’ heads to start out strong all week, and they definitely heeded his advice in Saturday’s showdown.
Hayden Loggins pushed in a run with a sacrifice fly in the top of the first, and Christian James stomped out any thoughts West Point had of evening it up with a slick double play at third base to end the bottom of the frame.
The Warriors wound up tying it at 1-all anyway in the second stanza, which began with back-to-back singles by Riley Voce and Adam Stewart. Two quick outs later, Levi Laney laced a run-scoring single to left field.
But as champions tend to do, the Bulldogs responded. They tacked on two in the third — the first on a groundout by Hardin and second on an RBI rip from Twitty — and never looked back.
The four sixth-inning runs that came across — three on a hit batter, a passed ball and a wild pitch with the bases loaded — were just icing on the cake, allowing the Purple and Gold to absorb an unearned run when it was West Point’s turn to take the plate.
Isaac Weissend was every bit the leadoff man Hanceville could ask for, drawing three walks and scoring twice. Griffin Brown was good for an RBI, and Austin Coker, James and Alex Armstrong all had a hit apiece. The latter also brought a run in by taking one to the body with ducks on the pond.
Armstrong, a junior, had his reasons for feeling ecstatic following the championship contest. His brother, Zac, had never won a county title during his days with the Dawgs, but, more importantly, it was the last go at county glory for the squad’s five seniors — Twitty, Blake Baker, Kyle Roberson and the Smith twins, Kody and Kolby.
“This is their first county championship, and this is our first, so it’s more special to win it for them than it is for the juniors, sophomores and freshman,” Armstrong said.
Chandler had talked about having the perfect three-pitcher plan on Tuesday and nearly replicated it to a T four days later.
Loggins carried the load through the first four frames, James picked up where he left off Friday with another pair of no-hit innings and Hardin made quick work of the Warriors with a 1-2-3 seventh.
The trio combined to keep West Point out of the hit column from the fourth inning on.
“It was a little strewed this time, but it still worked out perfect,” Chandler said. “I couldn’t be any prouder. It was a great way to finish the week.”
Next up on the docket for the Dawgs (8-3) is a home game Monday against Good Hope. The season is still young, and Hanceville doesn’t want this one shining moment to be its last to look back on in a few short months.
“Our next goal is to be area champions,” Twitty said. “We want to go in, take care of that and then make it to the playoffs for the first time in a long time.”
The Warriors squandered their best shot to win a second straight county title with a 3-1 loss to Hanceville on Tuesday. They were able to storm back to the championship with a win Wednesday and a pair of victories on Friday but didn’t have much gas left in the tank when it was needed most.
“Our guys were tired. We could see it coming to the ballpark. They were kind of sluggish,” West Point coach Trai Meadows said. “We just weren’t ready to play. Give credit to Hanceville. They were pumped up, they came out and threw strikes, and we just didn’t come up with big hits.”
Voce finished off a successful week with the stick with a 2-for-3 display. Bryant Farley and Jones contributed a hit each.
Jones struck out six in a six-inning start. Tanner Rusk pitched a spotless seventh.
The Warriors (9-2) won’t have any time to dwell on the letdown. They’ll jump right back into action with a doubleheader against Priceville Monday and another versus Walker on Tuesday.
“I told them to forget about it and come to play on Monday,” Meadows said.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at email@example.com.