Last spring, longtime coach William Booth credited Hartselle’s eighth state baseball title to one player more than any other: Cullman’s Keegan Thompson.
The Tigers trained and trained to top the insanely talented pitcher, but never could. Not in the regular season. Not in the playoffs. Not ever.
But they could — and did — hang with every other fireballer on the road to Montgomery simply because they were so prepared for Thompson. To put it plainly, none had stuff as filthy as the ’Cats’ world-class ace.
Flash forward a year, and Thompson and his grade-A repertoire are now being featured prominently on the Plains. Such a departure has surely left the Black and Gold baseball program in shambles, right?
Not. Even. Close.
In actuality, the current product setting up shop at Bill Shelton Field actually appears to be an overall improvement to the last two teams that took the diamond during Thompson’s tenure. These balanced Bearcats can not only hit (see Owen Lovell, Lance Cleveland and Cole Collins), but they can pitch (see Sam Huser and Jesse Scott) and field (see Maison Goodwin, Orvis Cuello, Samuel Murphree and Kolby Robinson) with the best of them, too.
More importantly, this Cullman squad can win (see No. 2 ranking and 36-10 record), something it would like to do in the second round versus Hartselle for the first time in three years. The Black and Gold’s bid for revenge will officially begin at 4:30 p.m. Friday at home.
“It means everything to us,” Huser said of north Alabama’s historic rivalry. “It’s the biggest game of the season. We lost to them the past two years after beating them in area. We feel like if we can get past them, we can go to state pretty easily.”
Thompson was left to play the hero following Game 1 losses each of the last two seasons. He delivered in full both times, striking out an insane 15 and 16 Hartselle batters, respectively, in electric outings to extend the series into the weekend.
The pitcher in Thompson’s place this postseason is Huser, who piled on 12 K’s in a Game 2 gem last Friday against Athens. He’s yet to shy away from the spotlight of being the Bearcats’ No. 1 option, building a bountiful resume that includes an 8-0 record, a save and a 1.44 earned run average.
Behind Huser is Scott (6-2), this past week’s Game 1 winner. And behind Scott is a whole slew of other capable arms, including Branch Hill, Auston Neal, Noah Fondren, Jackson Hill and Carter Bowen, among others.
“We have a lot of guys I feel comfortable putting in the game, and that’s a luxury we haven’t had,” Cullman coach Brent Patterson said. “None of them are the dominant type where you might not come in and get those strikeouts like Keegan, but defensively, we’re also a little better so we can make more plays than we’ve been able to.”
Fielding has indeed been one of the Black and Gold’s many strong suits, likely a product of Patterson’s “pitch it and defend it” philosophy.
There was one instance last week the coach thought might not have stuck out to the casual observer. With two outs and an Athens runner on third in the second inning of a so-far scoreless series opener, second baseman Samuel Murphree charged forward on a sharp liner, snared it off a quick hop and fired it to first to end the threat.
“That’s a very tough play that doesn’t look hard, but it is,” Patterson said. “We’ve got guys who are really athletic that are able to not open doors for innings. There are just some things where it almost looks like routine plays.”
According to Huser, it certainly doesn’t hurt — offensively or defensively — when each starter has a perfectly qualified backup chomping at the bit to prove their worth.
“Everybody can play a position. We’ve got multiple guys who can step in if somebody’s not doing their job,” said the hurler, who just so happens to have two home runs at the plate, too. “Even in the lineup, it’s hard for him (Patterson) to make a lineup because so many people can hit.”
On paper, it’s easy to perceive Hartselle as down. They lost a ton of seniors — Jackson Smith, Deacon Aldridge, Colton Ord and Chris Smith are on the short list — and, in turn, took more than its usual share of lumps throughout the regular season.
But that doesn’t mean the defending champs should be seen as pushovers. The No. 5 Tigers (29-19) still have super slugger Brett Blackwood, not to mention a tried-and-true blueprint to playoff baseball that’s worked wonders over the years.
It definitely came in handy during last Friday’s doubleheader at Muscle Shoals, when Hartselle skated to a six-inning Game 1 win before gutting out a 3-2 triumph in the late stages of the nightcap.
Care to take the Tigers lightly? Go ahead. Just don’t ask Patterson to join the club.
“They’ve got 29 wins, and they’ve played basically the same schedule we have,” the coach said. “That’s a lot of wins. You can’t go out there, make mistakes and expect to beat them. It’s a credit to their coaching staff, to the tradition that’s built there, to, just like our kids when they come in, they expect to win — and so do theirs.”
Cullman, which beat Hartselle in all five meetings this season, enjoyed 2-0 and 5-4 advantages at various points in last year’s decisive Game 3. However, it all came crashing down for the ’Cats with a nine-run eighth inning that saw 15 Hartselle batters approach the plate.
Playing from ahead — and staying ahead — is one of Neal’s keys to the Black and Gold getting over their second-round hump.
“We want to get the lead early, take care of business and put them away,” the senior said. “I think that’ll be the difference this year.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.