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April 4, 2014

PREP BASEBALL: Up-and-down Holly Pond still holds playoff fate in own hands

HOLLY POND — Holly Pond had something that almost every other county baseball team did not by the end of this week — a fighting chance to make the playoffs.

That’s right, the Broncos, those of an 11-15 record and, at one point, a six-game losing streak, are in a similarly shaped boat as Cullman and Hanceville. If the Green and White (3-1 in Class 3A, Area 14) sweep next week’s series against New Hope, they’re area champs and host a first-round game. Even in the case of a split, there’d still be the tiebreaker to decide which squad squeaks into the postseason as the area runner-up.

Those are some pretty high stakes, eh? Eighth-year Holly Pond coach Brett Neal wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I love the fact that we go into the last week playing for something,” he said. “I’ve been in the situation where we haven’t, and it’s a struggle. Some of them were just ready to give it up. Some have turned jerseys in. But to have something to play for, I hope it builds some excitement.”

Neal is also hopeful his boys can feed off the momentum from their recent series with J.B. Pennington, a down-and-up — and down again — affair.

Holly Pond sandwiched a second-inning letdown that resulted in a 3-0 loss and a 13-0 drubbing in the tiebreak with an 8-5 triumph in the first game on Thursday’s docket. The Broncos quickly fell behind and, with ducks on the pond for the Tigers in the top of the fourth, appeared to be headed for an even larger deficit.

That was until Neal turned to ever-reliable senior Hunter Townson, who, despite slinging six innings just two days earlier, answered the call with a crucial strikeout of Brandon Butts, J.B. Pennington’s big hitter on the baseball field and dual-threat quarterback on the gridiron. The Green and White offense then responded with all eight of their runs in the bottom half of the frame, more than enough for Townson and Co. to close out the much-needed victory.

Neal was none too surprised by his hurler’s gutsy effort. He said Townson, who started making waves on the varsity level as an eighth-grader, has “always been the guy you depend on.”

“He was pretty much going to sell out. I know his arm was hurting because he had pitched probably 90 pitches Tuesday night,” Neal said. “But once we were down 3-0 and the bases were loaded with two outs, I knew it was now or never. He gets a called strike three in a full-count situation. You can’t get more pressure than that.”

Townson is one of four Holly Pond seniors — Mitchell Naler, M.J. Ford and Nick Chrietzberg are the others — looking to cap off their prep careers with their first taste of playoff baseball. The last time the program reached the postseason was 2008, Neal’s second year at the helm and the second spring in a row the Broncos finished as area runners-up to Madison Academy.

Neal said the punching of a playoff ticket “would be a lasting memory” for the four aforementioned veterans. Naler, whose only other playoff experience came on the football field during his sophomore season, agreed.

“We haven’t had that (a fighting chance) in a long time,” he said. “I’m really excited. I think we all are.”

Don’t think the excitement would stop when — or if — the Green and White made the postseason, either.

“We’ll be happy to get there, but we’re not just going to be content in just getting there,” Naler said. “We want to win. That’s the whole point of going.”

New Hope just so happens to be the team that put an end to Holly Pond’s playoff hopes in 2013. The Indians capitalized on a whopping 14 Bronco errors in the series rubber match to win a crazy 15-11 contest.

Neal expects the youthful New Hope roster he saw a year ago to come in with some additional experience this time around. The same goes for his lineup, though, especially in the fielding department.

“Compared to last year, we’re already better defensively,” the coach said. “We’ve had bad games, but, for the most part, we’ve been pretty consistent.”

The Green and White will get one final tuneup for New Hope in the form of a Saturday doubleheader. They’ll play host Falkville at 10 a.m. and Danville at noon.

Second-ranked Cullman will have it out with arch-rival Hartselle for the 5A, Area 15 title next Tuesday and Thursday, while Hanceville will take on Danville for the 3A, Area 11 crown. Both squads have already clinched postseason spots regardless of the outcome of either series.

 

% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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