Lance Cleveland and Owen Lovell hit back-to-back long balls Thursday at home against West Point, and now the Bearcats can rest assured they’re heading back to the playoffs.
The senior-freshman power duo spearheaded a nine-run second inning that sent Cullman well on its way to a 12-0 victory. More importantly, the win — their ninth in a row — improved the No. 2 Black and Gold (28-8) to 4-0 in Class 5A, Area 15 play to guarantee they’ll be postseason bound later this month.
“It’s definitely a big deal, but we’re not done yet,” Cleveland said. “We’ve still got Hartselle next week. That’s going to be a big series. But it definitely feels good to make the playoffs.”
Cleveland came up to the plate in the second inning with the bases loaded and simply tried “to get a good base hit, drive in some runs and kind of break the game open.” The lefty did all that — and more — lining a first-pitch laser over the fence in right-center field for the grand slam.
Lovell couldn’t follow with a four-run swing of his own, but he did the best with what he had to work with, smacking a solo shot that cleared the wall in left-center field.
“It’s crazy. He’s just one of those guys that has natural pop,” Cleveland said of the hot-swinging ninth-grader. “The ball just flies off his bat.”
The homers were Cleveland’s and Lovell’s third and sixth of the season, respectively.
“You want to have a presence in the middle of your lineup, and right now, we’ve got it,” Bearcat coach Brent Patterson said. “We’ve just got to try to keep moving in the right direction.”
Cullman’s Nos. 3 and 4 hitters weren’t the only ones bringing in runners in back-to-back fashion. Keaton Dean and Auston Neal started the scoring with consecutive singles, and Samuel Murphree and Cole Collins kept it rolling with two straight doubles.
Cleveland (home run, double and four RBIs) and Collins (double and two RBIs) both closed out the day 2 for 3, while Lovell was a flawless 2 for 2 with a pair of RBIs.
Muphree’s double drove in two, Neal had a single and two RBIs, and Cristian Martinez and Dean each touted a hit.
Lost in the buzz of the Black and Gold’s offensive explosion was a fine, five-inning outing by Branch Hill. The junior retired the first eight batters he faced and notched two of his five strikeouts in the fifth frame.
Hill (3-2) fell behind more foes than Patterson would’ve liked but still found ways to recover in most instances and let his defenders take care of the rest.
“We want to stay out of three-ball counts a lot more than we did, but I’m proud of him for what he did,” the coach said of Hill.
Cullman completed the Thursday sweep with another 12-0 triumph. Jackson Hill tossed a complete-game two-hitter, and Carter Bowen cranked a homer to help the team put together its second 10-win run of the season.
Patterson said the beginning of April is the “fun part” for teams with postseason aspirations like the Bearcats. The weather is getting warmer, and squads everywhere are looking to turn things up a notch and build on what’s gotten them this far.
“Right now, what you’ve got is what you’ve got,” the coach said. “You’ve got to do the little things, be sharp and try to get ready for a playoff run. You need to be clicking on all cyclinders.”
Cullman will briefly dip out of its area schedule for a set of marquee matchups Saturday at Bill Shelton Field. The Cats will duke it out with 5A No. 3 Southside at 11 a.m. and 6A No. 8 Huntsville at 3 p.m. Both visitors are scheduled to face off at 1 p.m.
“You’ve just got to keep right on the throttle,” Patterson said. “Every day is a new day, and you’ve got to get better every day or else somebody’s going to pass you.”
West Point’s two hits came off the bats of Will Wrenn and Riley Voce, both in the fourth inning. Wrenn ended the first frame by gunning down his fourth runner of the series with a strong-armed throw to second.
Blake Yearwood slowed the bleeding with 2 2/3 innings of effective relief. He fanned the first batter he faced and limited the Black and Gold to just three runs after their early outburst.
Two days earlier, Trai Meadows was left fuming over six errors and seven unearned runs. On Thursday, though, there was nothing left for the Warrior coach to do but tip his hat to his opponent.
“They hit all over the field and had a couple of big home runs,” Meadows said. “That kind of put us in a hole that we never could get out of.”
Despite being eliminated from postseason contention, West Point (0-4 in area) still has plenty to play for the rest of the spring. The Warriors will only lose two seniors — albeit two biggies in Jordan McKenzie and Adam Stewart — to graduation and return a bevvy of talented teens like Tanner Rusk, Bryant Farley, Voce and Wrenn.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys, which is good,” Meadows said. “It’s time for them to kind of step up, take control and start working for the future.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.