Cullman 2002

From left to right, Cullman's Joey Shear, Josh Phillips, Michael Rutledge, Matt Dellinger and Robbie Laney hold up the Blue Map trophy in 2002.

The one that started it all came out of nowhere.

But what an awesome ride it was for the 2002 Cullman baseball team.

The Bearcats, who hadn't advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 1996, completed an undefeated march through the Class 5A postseason to earn the program's first-ever state championship.

It sparked an unprecedented run for the Black and Gold that continues to this very day.

Since winning that initial title, Cullman has reached the top four more times (2007, 2008, 2015 and 2019) and finished runner-up on seven different occasions (2003, 2004, 2005, 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2017).

It doesn't get much more dynastic than that, folks.

I interviewed several key people who were a part of the championship squad that started it all, and they offered their thoughts and recollections about a season that will forever go down in the history books.

Cullman entered the 2002 campaign with a ton of experience — the team boasted nine seniors — and was coming off a 25-10 season and playoff berth, the second in three years under coach Bryan Bowen. The Bearcats expected to reach the postseason once again, but a potential state championship wasn’t exactly on their minds. Nonetheless, Cullman put together a solid regular season and entered the playoffs with a 31-10 record — just a couple of years removed from a 10-25 mark.

% Brent Patterson (Cullman assistant; now Cullman coach): “Coming in, I think we knew we had a really tough and very competitive team. We wanted to make a deep playoff run that would tell us we were heading in the right direction. Never having done it before, never been — I don’t think Montgomery was an expectation.”

% Austin Hall (Cullman senior second baseman): “We wanted to improve on the previous years and make it as deep in the playoffs as we could. The expectation was that, and it started growing as we progressed.”

% A.J. Johnson (Cullman senior pitcher/catcher): “Our senior group had two years of travel ball together, so we’d been molded for two years before high school. It seemed like that senior year team could do something magical. But making a run like we did, we never dreamed of that.”

% Joey Shear (Cullman senior outfielder): “To be blunt, we didn’t have any expectations of winning a state championship. We thought we maybe had some potential, and let’s see how it goes. We had an outstanding junior class and a really good sophomore class. But of our nine seniors, we had no Division 1 players. But we had the best chemistry of any team Cullman has ever had, in my opinion. We spent as much time (together) off the field as we did on the field. Playing baseball was the easy part, and we just had all the pieces to make it work.”

% Todd Graveman (Cullman senior pitcher/first baseman): “We really hadn’t gone too deep in the playoffs up until that point. Winning a state championship, those kind of expectations were out of the question. But we wanted to get better and make a deep run. We always talked about playing good, fundamental baseball. That was the priority. If we did what we were supposed to do, we were going to win games. But my expectation was just getting to play baseball with my buddies one last time. We’d been playing together since we were 10, so it was just going out and enjoying it one more time.”

% Bowen: “I never went into any series thinking we couldn’t win it. At the same time, being a realist, did I really think we’d win a championship? Probably not. It’s a learned behavior to move through the playoffs. We were tough enough, and I thought we were good enough to compete and win those series. This team was talented. Was it the most talented team I had? No. But those guys were pushed harder than any other team.”

% Josh Goodwin (Cullman junior outfielder): “We had a lot of seniors coming back, and that team in 2002 played together all through little league. We knew we’d have a great team with a lot of guys who had played a lot of baseball together. We had a mediocre season in 2001. In 2002, we just played baseball.”

The No. 6 Bearcats opened the playoffs with a first-round matchup at Jacksonville. Back then, the first and second rounds consisted of single-elimination games. Skyler Chamblee pitched a beauty for Cullman (7 IP, 5 H, 9 K), while Michael Rutledge socked a solo homer in a 3-1 victory. Just like that, Bowen's squad was on to the next round. One round down, four to go.

% Johnson: “That was a big deal. That turned the page and opened a new chapter for what could happen.”

% Hall: “You take the little wins along the way and build on them. We checked that off the list, and it gave us a shot in the arm. And we thought, ‘Hey, we can win some more of these.’ The mindset then became, ‘Let’s go see what we can do to win in the second round.’"

% Bowen: “That win validated some things for us and certainly what we were trying to do. I felt like we were doing all the right things. It was a seven-inning, one-day, on-the-road baseball series. I was worried, but we saw ourselves do it. That was a big one.”

% Chamblee: “It’s not something I really remember — I don’t remember many games that I pitched in. It was just real quiet, real mellow, go through your notes. I do remember walking out of the dugout when the game started and looking from the left field foul pole to the right field foul pole and seeing nothing but Cullman people. The way they supported us was incredible.”

Cullman 2002 2

Cullman's Matt White hugs teammate Tyler Hearin.

The Black and Gold returned to Bill Shelton Field for a second-round outing against Briarwood Christian the following week. And what a thriller it turned out to be. The Bearcats, nursing a 6-5 lead, called on Graveman to shut down the Lions and bring them one step closer to Montgomery. The situation was fraught with drama. Briarwood Christian had the tying run on second with nobody out, and Chris Morrow — who homered earlier in the contest — stepped into the box.

% Graveman: “I always seemed to perform better when the pressure was on. If it’s a one-run game with the game on the line, that’s when I wanted the ball in my hand. I believed in my pitches and believed I could throw them all in any count. And I had the best defense behind me. If the ball went in the air, I knew it wasn’t going to hit the ground. I had vacuum cleaners on the infield. I knew anything that got hit was going to be an out.”

% Bowen: “It’s hard to think back, but I remember how well he pitched in that particular situation. Todd was humungous in that game.”

% Patterson: “Bryan told him not to worry about the runner. If he scores, fine. Just get us out of the inning.”

Turns out, Cullman didn’t need to worry about that tying run. Graveman retired Morrow (groundout) and the two batters that followed (strikeout and groundout) to earn the save. The Bearcats were suddenly on to the quarterfinals for the first time in six years. There were just eight teams remaining in the title hunt.

% Johnson: “I was catching, and Todd was known for his split-finger (pitch). When he had it on, it was nasty. I remember giving him that signal thinking, ‘Man, if he hits his spots, we’re going to get out of this.’ Nobody was going to hit it. It was his favorite pitch. But being a catcher, you hated it because you didn’t know where it was going to go.”

% Graveman: “I never really thought, ‘What if I give up a run or what if they go ahead?’ My mind was focused on these three guys I’m going to get out, and we’re going to the next round. After the game, there was a little sigh of relief. But it was more businesslike, too. Like, ‘Hey, that’s how I wanted it to go.’”

% Goodwin: “Graveman had some dirty stuff, and everybody knew it. I don’t think there was a single guy on the team who thought he wouldn’t do the job."

% Hall: “The playoffs as a whole … as much as you try to keep them in check, you’ve got a wide range of emotions. One of the things we did well as a team is we fed off the emotions we needed — we knew when to attack. (And) when things weren’t going well, I always thought we did a good job of picking each other up and battling. The level of competitiveness from our team was incredible.”

% Bowen: “I had never, as a coach, taken a team that far at the time. I was a young coach, and they probably sensed the relief off me and Brent. It probably made us better coaches. I was a high-intensity guy, so I think those first two wins relaxed everybody. We wanted out of single-elimination, so there was probably a comfort level after that, and then they’re starting to trust in the process.”

Next up for the Black and Gold came a best-of-three series at No. 3 Walker. The Bearcats nabbed a Game 1 victory (2-1) behind a strong outing from Chamblee (6 IP, 8 H, 4 K). The Vikings, though, came out punching in the second contest, and Cullman found itself trailing by three runs with just five outs left. Then came what you might call a big-time comeback. The Black and Gold eventually loaded the bases in the sixth inning before Goodwin cleared them with a three-run, game-tying double. Clay Whittemore's single shortly after put the Bearcats ahead 6-5 in front a stunned crowd — sans the road team’s raucous fans.

% Goodwin: “I was in a playoff slump, but Bowen called me over and said, ‘There’s nobody I’d rather have up here. Go do your thing.’ That really relaxed me. I was able to hit it where they weren’t, and it dropped in.”

% Whittemore (Cullman sophomore outfielder): “Josh’s hit certainly took a lot of pressure off me. The thing I remember about Josh was that he was on fire for a large part of the year. It seemed like every single time he came to the plate, he was going to find a gap. But I hit that ball solid, and it hit the top of the mound rubber and shot probably 50 feet up in the air. By the time it came down, I was already on first. I had never seen a ball shoot up like that. It was kind of a freak play.”

% Bowen: “Walker could really pitch. But we had some talented hitters.”

% Patterson: “That was one of the most hostile environments we’d been in up to that point. They came out (in Game 2) playing well and with confidence. We couldn’t get anything going. But when Josh got that hit, our dugout started going crazy, and our fans started going crazy. I think then we started to believe we could beat anybody. Josh got that hit, and everybody breathed. Then, Clay just battled and battled after that for his hit.”

% Chamblee: “As far as making pitches (in Game 1), it was just throw the ball and let everyone play behind me. My job was to keep the ball on the ground. Up until that point, we were pretty flawless defensively. I knew if I did my job, the guys behind me would do theirs. Whether that was on the grass or with the sticks. I was just playing catch with my friends.”

Cullman 2002 3

Cullman's Adam Harrison (19), Robbie Laney (26) and Josh Goodwin celebrate after winning the 2002 state title.

The Vikings attempted to rebound and send the series to a winner-take-all tiebreaker in the seventh inning. Unfortunately for Walker, though, Shear had other plans. With one on and one out, the outfielder made a spectacular catch in shallow right field — he raced past the bullpen mounds, soared completely parallel to the ground and dove courageously onto a railroad tie in foul ground — to all but take the air out of the home team's comeback attempt. Johnson — who came on for the save — struck out the next hitter, and Cullman had now won three straight one-run games. The Bearcats were officially headed to the Final Four.

% Shear: “It was a classic movie scenario. Guy hits a pop up, and it was probably 10-12 feet behind first base. I just took off. I was pretty fast and thought I had a chance to catch it. The crazy thing is, I was so close to the infield that I was the one who threw it back to A.J. after I caught it. I remember the crowd went nuts. Still to this day, I have a scar on my elbow from sliding onto those railroad ties.”

% Patterson: “It seemed like that ball was in the air forever, and I didn’t think there’d be a play. But he kept running and kept running and kept running. I actually lost sight of the ball. But when he dove, I saw the ball come down and him making the catch. Bryan put him in as a defensive replacement, and I don’t know that anybody else gets to that ball. When he made that play, we all thought we were meant to win this series. It’s one of the biggest catches in one of the biggest situations we’ve ever had. The magnitude of that catch — it may be one of the biggest catches in the history of our program.”

% Shear: “About a month before this game, we played Bob Jones. A guy hit a routine pop up to me, and I dropped it. And I never miss a fly ball. It was embarrassing, and we lost. A.J. pitched that game, and I went up to him afterward and promised I would make it up to him. After this game, I went up to A.J. again, winked at him and said, ‘I told you.’”

% Johnson: “Joey’s always been a funny person, the comedian of the group. When he dove across those railroad ties, it was something on ESPN. From then on, the game changed. I can remember the fans on the hill hooting and hollering.”

% Graveman: “That was an ESPN Top 10 catch if there ever was one. Joey ran a mile it seemed like. Everybody in that stadium thought that ball was out of play. He dives like Superman, catches the ball and pops back to his feet. And there was no way we were going to waste that catch.”

% Hall: “You were just in amazement of the catch itself, and the overall situation with what was happening in the game and with the team at that time.”

% Goodwin: “Joey asked me right before that play if I could see, and I told him, ‘I can’t see anything.’ Then he goes and makes that catch.”

% Whittemore: “Joey was incredibly fast. Every single inch mattered. That was a significant momentum shift. It gave us energy and took away a lot from the other side.”

% Chamblee: “He saved the playoffs.”

% Bowen: “He made just an unbelievable play. It was a big league play, honest to God.”

The semifinal series saw No. 2 Mortimer Jordan make its way to Bill Shelton Field. The Blue Devils brought along a pair of fantastic hurlers in Pat Allison and Ryan Keedy, who went on to college careers at UNA and UAB, respectively. But it was Johnson and Chamblee who delivered on the mound. The former threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings (seven hits and two strikeouts) in a 1-0 win in Game 1. Goodwin produced the only run-scoring hit of the contest with an RBI double. In Game 2, Chamblee outdueled Keedy, and the offense provided more than enough firepower — Rutledge, Johnson, Josh Phillips and Whittemore all netted RBIs — to propel the Bearcats to a 6-1 triumph in front of a crowd of more than 2,500 people.

% Graveman: “We were angry, because we’d heard the whole season that Hartselle has these pitchers, and they’re great, and Walker has these pitchers, and they’re great, and Bob Jones has these pitchers, and they’re great. It was always about the other pitchers. But nobody was talking about us. We weren’t overpowering, but we felt like we could be the best staff on the field. It inspired us to be on the top of our game pitching against that competition.”

% Johnson: “We never got any public recognition. It was always the studs on the other teams. Every week, they’d always have a write-up — ‘Cullman’s the underdog again.’ It fueled our fire.”

% Chamblee: “We were the underdogs, and that was fine. I don’t mind being the underdogs at home. All we had to do was keep the ball low. Unless they were hitting with shovels, they weren’t knocking it out of our park. But they were dangerous top to bottom, one through nine. It was tense, but that’s the way you want those games to be. A.J. did his job to start the sweep. We played with a lot of heart and grit. We knew what had to be done, and everybody pulled their own weight.”

% Bowen: “Our guys had a chip on their shoulders. Those Mortimer Jordan guys were tremendous. But that night, we outpitched them. A.J. and Skyler dominated. Being in the Final Four at home, it was just an unbelievable crowd. I don’t know if we ever had a bigger crowd. Students from other schools were sitting on top of buses watching the game. It was a surreal scene. The setting was great, the night was great and our kids competed. We really played well that night.”

% Patterson: “That series was the most fun I’d ever had, at that point, on a baseball field. Bryan had instilled in all those guys — and it spilled over to me — that we’re as good as anybody, and we were one of the best teams left. No one thought we could do something of that magnitude. Our community was so excited, and people were showing up from all over the place. I really remember thinking those were two great teams. It was a heavyweight fight, but our guys matched their guys pitch for pitch. I remember after the game, I went and found my parents. They were so proud that we were taking this team to Montgomery.”

% Whittemore: “Every day was a new discovery it felt like. Every game was a new experience for me. I was as much learning and soaking it in as I was trying to win. And it was hard to do both.”

% Goodwin: “That was the first really big series for us. It was a very tough team. That really stuck out to me as to when things started getting serious for us.”

% Shear: “To be in that environment with so many people … we had people coming in from different schools watching. I remember thinking, ‘We’ve made it. This is what the future is going to look like at Cullman from now on.’ But it was definitely nerve-wracking.”

Meanwhile, Stanhope Elmore swept St. Paul's (3-2 and 9-8) in the other semifinal, and the 5A title series was suddenly set for Paterson Field in Montgomery.

% Bowen: “Big, strong team with powerful arms. We weren’t that big, and people weren’t knocking down the door for our players. So we got to play that underdog role in Montgomery. We’d never been there. It was our first rodeo, and we were just learning. The kids overcame all my firsts.”

% Patterson: “I remember trying to find out as much as we could about them, and it was a lot harder then. We knew they had good starting pitchers and that it was going to be tough to score runs. But when we went down to Montgomery, it never seemed like our guys were overwhelmed by the moment. They didn’t get caught up in other stuff. They were there to win two games.”

% Graveman: “They were well-disciplined, they could hit it and they could pitch it. They weren’t going to be there if they weren’t solid in all facets of the game.”

The first of those games — no surprise given Cullman's penchant for excitement — came down to the wire. The Black and Gold led 3-1 — thanks to a two-run single by Matt White and an RBI double by Johnson earlier in the tilt — heading into the seventh inning. The Mustangs, however, didn't go quietly. Johnson surrendered a homer and a walk before being relieved by Chamblee. The latter then walked the first batter he faced before getting the next one to hit into a fielder's choice. The situation now: Runners on the corners, one out, up 3-2.

% Chamblee: “I didn’t want the game to come to that, because I was supposed to pitch in Game 2. But it worked out in our favor. You had to trust your coaches, and that’s what I did. They made the right calls. Stanhope was expecting more speed, and we played the mind game with off-speed (pitches).”

% Bowen: “We cashed in all our chips and went with A.J. and Skyler. We had to win that game. I’m probably a nervous wreck. A.J. had thrown one heck of a game. We were mixing and matching, and Skyler hadn’t come in relief very much from what I can remember. So you’re putting him in a new situation.”

% Shear: “We were so confident in each position that anyone could and would make a play. Fear of losing or something bad happening wasn’t really in our minds. We knew it was our time.”

% Patterson: “I remember being as nervous as I’ve ever been right then and thinking about the magnitude of the situation. I thought, ‘If we can win this game, we had a legit chance to win it all.’ But I also remember we were facing a lot of trouble.”

Chamblee, though, brushed off the pressure, striking out the final two hitters to preserve the triumph. Bowen and Co. were now just one win away from the program's first state championship. The anticipation for Game 2 — and everything it could represent — had reached its peak.

% Chamblee: “Looking back now, I reckon the grit we had … we refused to lose. We didn’t think about losing. We thought about playing together and winning together. Losing wasn’t in our blood, and it wasn’t in our vocabulary.”

% Bowen: “Once we won, you start feeling great about it. We’ve got this momentum. We’re tough. We were blue-collar back then. I remember being so relieved to get that win. It was more relief than excitement. It was rewarding, but every win provided us relief. Cullman had never been that far and that close.”

% Patterson: “We got those final two outs, and I thought and probably all of us thought, ‘There’s no way we’re going to lose two in a row.’ We were as close to reaching our goal as you can possibly be. A lot of the guys just looked at each other and were like, ‘We’ve got one more game to win.’ They wanted to make sure they finished the job.”

% Graveman: “After that win, it felt like nobody could beat us. There was a lot of confidence at that time.”

% Johnson: “With me and Skyler and Todd coming back — with that combination — they weren’t beating us. We’d beaten their best pitcher, and we were rolling through the playoffs. We were on cloud nine.”

% Goodwin: “When we beat them, I thought to myself, ‘We have a chance.’ But we were still focused. The last thing you wanted to do was blow it in Game 2 and 3.”

Cullman 2002 4

Cullman's Clay Whittemore, Tyler Hearin and Skyler Chamblee are all smiles.

The Bearcats ultimately closed their postseason run like they opened it — with a two-run win. Chamblee went six strong innings, the offense received RBI hits from Goodwin, Phillips and Whittemore, and Graveman saved his last — and most important — outing of the season after initially walking the leadoff man. Final score: Cullman 5, Stanhope Elmore 3. One of the best runs in program history was complete. With the Blue Map in hand, the celebration was on. And for most, it still hasn’t ended, figuratively speaking.

% Bowen: “It was just a tremendous feeling. So many games down there and so many last outs. That first one, though; it was just jubilation and relief. Nobody was more competitive than our players and our staff at that time. A lot of coaches go home and think about something else. Back then, we didn’t. It was like winning the World Series or the Super Bowl. It meant the world to us, our kids and our community.”

% Patterson: “Ground ball to Tyler Hearin at third base (for the last out). I had the infielders back then, and I remember telling them to want the ball. I thought that everybody wanted the ball hit to them, so they could be responsible for the final out. I remember trying to calm myself down before it happened. It was slow motion. It took forever. Before I knew it, though, Bryan had me in a bear hug and was about to choke the life out of me.”

% Graveman: “I had complete confidence in my defense. I let the ball fly, Tyler scoops it up, and I think I’m jumping up and down with my fists in the air before Matt caught it. I remember he caught it with two hands, which he never did. And he held it for maybe two or three seconds, but it felt like an eternity. Then, everybody was running out of the dugout, and I ended up on the bottom of a dogpile. That was fun.”

% Whittemore: “I don’t know if my heart beat at all from the time the ball left the bat to the time he made the catch. Everything stopped, and it just was frame by frame. When he let it go I was thinking, ‘Could this be it?’ I couldn’t believe (when it was over). I was asking, ‘Did we just do this?’”

% Johnson: “My thoughts were, ‘Just throw it over there close. Don’t overthrow it. Don’t bounce it.’ It was the slowest play ever. The stands were clearing, the dugout was clearing … we accomplished what nobody ever thought we would.”

% Chamblee: “We celebrated, and it was really cool. There were a lot of emotions. Hard work and long hours on the field and in the weight room — it paid off.”

% Shear: “My dad was my coach for 15 years of my life. When we won, they gave the trophy to the nine seniors to pose with it. I actually found my dad in the stands, and he held it up like a coach holds up the national championship trophy. It was a special father-son moment. I felt like he deserved it as much as I did. The dogpile was fun, too.”

% Hall: “That was such a special moment for the guys on the field. But I think the thing that resonates the most was seeing our coaches and families and friends, and seeing the impact it was having on Cullman and the community. It was so special to be able to share that moment with everybody who was so supportive of the baseball team. It made you really think about what had been accomplished. Your emotions are through the roof. You realize that’s the last game you’ve played (as a senior), but you’ve been a part of something special that will last a lifetime.”

% Goodwin: “Whenever I see those guys, we still talk about it. It was a special time for us. We didn’t know what to expect, but everything clicked for us. And the coaches did a great job of getting us prepped every week.”

% Bowen: “There was an expectation on the teams that followed. With this team, it was a totally unique thing. We didn’t even know how to celebrate. It was so raw in 2002 that it made it so special. There was no book on it. We were just showing up the next day and doing our best.”

% Patterson: “It was unreal the elation that day. A lot of people talked about how loud it was at Paterson Field. It was unreal how many people showed up. I told Bryan after the game, ‘We’ve got to do this again. This is what it’s all about.’ Little did we know the run we were about to go on. It’s hard to put into words how gratifying it was, and we knew we wanted to do everything we could to be able to get there again.”

Cullman wrapped up its championship campaign with a 39-10 record. The Bearcats had the highest number of victories among all baseball teams in the state in 2002, and they also set a new state record with 477 hits, though they broke it the following year with 496. The unforgettable journey and the memories made are still very much a part of those who lived it in the Black and Gold dugout 18 years ago. The first group to win the state title helped set the standard and shape the future of Cullman's baseball program in the years — think you could call those successful? — that followed. Don't expect them to forget it.

% Patterson: “These days, you fight a lot of different things – complacency, expectations, thinking just because you put on the jersey you’re going to be in Montgomery. Back then, it was totally different. It was about instilling belief. The blueprint never changed from Bryan and still hasn’t now. Take pride in outworking people, love each other, the team is more important than the player and play the best competition you can.”

% Shear: “It was a dream come true for us. Cullman is a special place. My dad played there. My brother played there. Going out as state champions made all the hard work worthwhile. Each person on that team made it possible. The experience is something I’ll take with me the rest of my life. Nobody can take that away from me.”

% Graveman: “When you get to a program, you always want to leave it better than you found it. There’s a lot that goes into that. Hard work and great coaching … that all leads to a successful program. It’s a great honor to have been on that team, but it’s even more rewarding to see the cycle continue. The kids coming through are trying to leave the program better than they found it. As long as that happens, Cullman will keep rolling. They won’t slow down anytime soon. The legacy will live on.”

% Johnson: “It’s very special. The program was mediocre, and now we’re nationally known. Several of us have kids coming up who will play on that field. That’s what started it. Putting that Blue Map in the case started the history.”

% Hall: “The biggest thing is the impact it’s had on the teams and the guys who have been a part of that program. Our team, if you put us up against anybody, may not have been the most talented team. But we were one of the grittiest teams to play together. Our ability to play as a team helped to give the program the backbone for a lot of unselfish guys. And I think that’s why they have been so successful over the years.”

% Whittemore: “It was pretty incredible for the Cullman community. I don’t think any one person gets the credit. Everybody had a huge part to play. They’ve maintained this run, too. What you want to try to do when you’re building a dynasty … you’re not going to win a state championship every year. But your goal should be to set a high standard and consistently perform to that high standard. Does it always work out? No. But more times than not you’ll be in that mix, and you’ll have a fighting chance to do something special.”

% Goodwin: “It’s coming up on 20 years, and it shows you baseball is meant to be fun. We didn’t expect to win a state championship. It was a bunch of great friends who played together for a long time. But it’s special to have the first one, and it started two decades of Cullman dominating.”

% Chamblee: “It’s really cool that we were the first ones to win a championship. I think about the senior class who first helped build the foundation during Bowen’s first season. Those guys set the standard of what was to come and what the program is today. Coach was young at that time, but he was a bulldog. Nothing was going to beat him, and he was going to succeed.”

% Patterson: “It became 100 percent easier to get people to buy in after that first title. Before that, we’d practice for hours and hours. At that time, people weren’t used to that. They’d poke fun, and there was a lot of doubt. I remember it fueled Bryan’s fire. It ate him alive. We were doing championship things at a championship level, and we hadn’t won a championship yet. But we proved it could be done at Cullman that year.”

% Bowen: “I’m thankful. They could have quit on me, because the work was tremendous. If you asked them all individually now, it probably crossed their minds then. We really tested them. It was trying on them and their parents. The early-morning workouts and how hard we pushed them, they could have quit. But somebody’s got to kick the door down for there to be a belief. And they kicked the door down. They weren’t the most talented Cullman team, but they kicked the door down, and I don’t know of a team that was tougher. And I love them for that. It changed everything. They did it, and I can’t thank them enough. I think they know they did something special. I really do.”

% Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 136 or at​

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