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May 10, 2014

CLASS 5A BASEBALL PLAYOFFS: Bearcats sweep Briarwood, will meet Spanish Fort in Montgomery for state championship

BIRMINGHAM — Cristian Martinez and Lance Cleveland hit back-to-back home runs on back-to-back pitches while wearing throwback jerseys — and that was just the first inning of Cullman's semifinal series at Briarwood Christian early Saturday evening.

Owen Lovell added a three-run blast and set a school record for doubles in a season, Auston Neal tossed his third straight shutout and set a state record for consecutive scoreless innings tossed, and the Bearcats breezed by the Lions to earn their eighth trip to Montgomery since 2002.

The No. 2 Black and Gold, which bounced Briarwood with 7-5 and 10-0 victories, will take on top-ranked Spanish Fort in Game 1 of the Class 5A state championship series next Friday at 4 p.m.

“It's probably one of the greatest feelings in the world honestly,” Cleveland said shortly after Cullman sealed the deal with a sixth-inning triumph. “It's what we've been working for all year, just to get there. Now we've got to go and prove ourselves.”

Cullman took only three batters to set the tone for the fourth-round bout. Martinez sailed a solo shot over the right-center fielder fence, and Cleveland followed suit on the very next pitch. Lovell joined in the fun with a three-run laser, his 14th home run of the spring, in the third to put the 'Cats up 6-0 and help them withstand a late comeback bid by Briarwood.

“That was definitely big,” Cleveland said of the Black and Gold's early offensive surge. “We wanted to punch first and get out in front of 'em, kind of rattle them a little bit.”

Cleveland finished 2 for 4 with the homer and two RBIs, Martinez was 2 for 3 with the solo shot and a double, and Samuel Murphree (RBI double) and Kolby Robinson each contributed a knock apiece.

Jesse Scott barreled through the first four frames before running into a bit of trouble in the tail end of his five-inning start. The southpaw, who improved to 8-2, struck out seven, walked three and gave up five hits and four runs (three earned) before handing the ball off to Branch Hill with no outs and runners on first and second in the sixth.

Hill allowed a double to the first foe he faced and a sacrifice fly to the third but did more than enough to keep Cullman on top. He struck out one and worked quickly in the seventh, catching the game-clinching fly ball in front of home plate to send his teammates into a frenzy and the Bearcats well on their way to yet another series sweep.

The Black and Gold carried the momentum into the nightcap, letting loose for two runs in the first, one in the second, and three in the third and fourth innings to put Briarwood on the ropes with a 9-0 advantage.

Murphree supplied the pop with a pair of doubles and two RBIs, as did Martinez (two RBIs) and Lovell (RBI), who both went 2 for 4 with a double.

Lovell's double was his 29th of the year, bypassing the program's previous best mark of 28 set by current Alabama star Ben Moore in 2011.

Neal helped his cause with three runs on a bases-clearing double in the fourth. Cleveland (double), Cole Collins (double), Clay Krout (RBI), Keaton Dean and Maison Goodwin chipped in a hit apiece.  

Collins also flexed his fielding muscles, laying out for a foul ball down the left field line early in the second inning.

Cullman was left to celebrate a return trip to Montgomery following its second walk-off strikeout of 2014. Murphree came up to the plate with each base occupied and whiffed on strike three but alertly sprinted to first in time when the pitch got by the catcher.

It wasn't quite how the senior drew it up, but he wasn't complaining considering the play's series-clinching circumstances.

“Oh my gosh. I'm just glad we had the bases loaded,” Murphree said with a sheepish grin. “I've got to give it to Neal and Jesse. They both pitched it really well, and we came to play with the bats, too. I'm real proud of our team, and I can't wait for next Friday.”

Neal continued an unmatched run of dominance with his third complete game shutout in a row, setting a new state record with 25 consecutive scoreless innings thrown. The previous record was 22.

The senior, who improved to 8-1, gave up his only two hits in the first two frames and started the third on shaky ground. He walked the bases loaded … and left them that way by striking out the side with ice water in his veins.

“I just said whatever happens here, I'm going to go back, take a deep breath and start all over,” Neal recalled of his mindset after putting all ducks on the pond. “So I did, and it worked out for me.”

Neal soaked in the celebration for a bit but briefly stepped back into business mode when discussing Cullman's upcoming state title series.

“We've just got to take care of business,” he said. “We're pumped, but we've got to be ready to do it.”

The 'Cats are in for their eighth trip to Montgomery since 2002. They've won three state championships since — the last came in 2008 — but were denied a fourth by Spanish Fort in the 2011 final.

Black and Gold coach Brent Patterson is thrilled to see the battle for the blue trophy come down to the top-two squads in the rankings for much of the spring.

“We're awfully excited to be going back,” he said. “You want these two teams in the meet in the finals. It's perfect. You get there and then anything can happen. It's going to be a great competition.”

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

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