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January 31, 2013

PREP BASEBALL: Cats enter 2013 confident, content with camaraderie

CULLMAN — Rainy days and Mondays almost always get Brent Patterson down on the first day of spring baseball practice.

On this past Monday, however, the Cullman coach was anything but gloomy. In fact, with 62-degree temperatures and clear skies allowing his players to hit the ground running on the road to Montgomery, Patterson and the Bearcats felt like they “were the luckiest human beings on the planet.”

“They’re relieved because they’re so sick of that throwing period and being restricted to what they can do. They want to get out and do this right here,” the coach said from shortstop while a handful of players took part in hit-and-run drills on Monday. “Nine times out of 10, you can’t because it’s 32 degrees and wet. But we’re out here on the first day taking batting practice on the field. It’s incredible.”

Keegan Thompson, Class 5A’s reigning Player of the Year, appeared to be in midseason form already. During his handful of trips to the plate, the Auburn signee effortlessly smashed a pair of jaw-dropping home runs, one a laser that sailed over the center field fence in no time and another that bounced off the back portion of the clubhouse roof.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” Thompson said. “I usually hit better starting off, but I just have to work at it and keep my swing.”

As a national pitching prospect, there will be plenty of eyes on the two-time Super All-State stud every time he takes the mound. That kind of pressure would make most high school athletes nervous, but the mild-mannered Thompson is ready for the spotlight.

“I think it’s going to be pretty exciting to see everybody out there that’s wanting to watch me play,” he said. “I mean, I’ve still got to play like I’ve been playing all my life, just go out there, work hard and give it my all.”

Thompson will anchor a top-heavy pitching rotation that features recent Snead State signee Jordan Guthrie as the No. 2 starter. Patterson views that 1-2 punch as one of the team’s biggest strengths but conceded that title to the camaradie this year’s boys bring to the diamond.

The 2013 roster isn’t drastically different than last season’s version and includes a great deal of kids who are quite familiar with each other.

“I really love the camaraderie, the chemistry, the character of this team,” Patterson said. “I think the quality of their person is extremely high. Believe it or not, I think that’s our No. 1 strength. I really do.”

Lance “Grover” Cleveland, who is expected to be a fixture in the heart of the lineup and take over at first base with the departure of Josh Weldon, was on the same page with his coach regarding the way these latest Bearcats get along.

“It’s probably one of the best it’s ever been because we’ve all played together since we were little kids for the most part,” he said. “The kids in my grade have played together since seventh grade.”

After Thompson and Guthrie, Patterson doesn’t have many proven options to turn to on the hill. The coach said he’ll look to players like Sam Huser, Troy Forrest, Auston Neal, Clay Krout, Joseph Gable and Cleveland to show they can be consistent as the year progresses.

Outside of Weldon at first, Jakob Kirkwood and Kyle Way were the main two seniors Cullman lost to graduation in the field. Patterson put Sam Murphree, Dominican-native Christian Martinez and Neal in a pool to fill Kirkwood’s void, while Keaton Dean, Wesley Walker and Mason Jones will all compete for Way’s playing time.

Cole Collins is back to build on his breakout freshman campaign, and second baseman Kristian Robinson has big plans for ending his senior season in style. Zac Crocker will resume his starting spot behind the plate with Krout and Martinez serving as possible backups.

“Because of our athleticism, we’ll be able to put guys in a lot of places,” Patterson said. “It’ll give us the ability to be versatile, move people around, sit people and keep people fresh.”

A second-round exit in last year’s playoffs increased the Bearcats’ state title drought to four years. That might not seem like long to most programs, but for a perennial contender like Cullman, Patterson is biting at the bit to bring the Black and Gold their fourth championship. The coach isn’t willing to toss aside his other objectives in the process, though.

“We want to win a state championship so bad we can taste it, but at the same time, developing quality young men that are going to be leaders in the community is really more important,” he said. “Twenty years from now, when you see what types of husbands and fathers they are, that’s the long-range goal.”

The fact arch-rival Hartselle ousted the Bearcats from the 2012 postseason hasn’t been lost on anyone. Cleveland said that’s been a touchy subject, and Thompson mentioned a few players have seen a few Tigers talking about how good they’re going to be on various social media sites.

Thompson, however, said he plans to do his talking on the field.

“It’s been motivating us,” he said. “We’re just waiting to play them again.”

Cullman will open its season at home on Feb. 18 against Oxford and Pelham. The Bearcats won’t get a shot at Hartselle until April 9.

% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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