By Kyle Parmley
CULLMAN – Most programs would be more than satisfied with reaching the state semifinals in two of the past three seasons.
Do not mark Shane Chappell and the Pinson Valley baseball program among them.
“We are not happy about just being here,” Chappell said following his team’s dismissal from the AHSAA Class 6A playoffs on Friday night. “We are where we belong now. We have been (in the semifinals) two out of the last three years.”
Pinson Valley (32-15) ran up against top-ranked Cullman, and suffered losses of 10-1 and 7-2 to end its season. The Bearcats improved their record to 43-9 on the season, and will head to Montgomery next weekend in search of their fourth state championship.
“Cullman is what everybody expected,” Chappell said. “We knew that coming in.”
The Bearcats jumped out to early leads in both contests and controlled the proceedings throughout behind strong pitching performances from Auburn signee Jesse Scott and sophomore Jacob Heatherly.
Brett Jordan got the start for the Indians in game one, and faced trouble from the outset. Owen Lovell, a sophomore Alabama commit, and Orvis Cuello each had an RBI single in the opening inning. The following inning, Drake Hollingsworth doubled and was pinch run for by Isaac Willingham. Back-to-back wild pitches to the next batter allowed him to cross the plate.
The Indians scored their lone run of the opening contest in the top of the third, when Gage Farley led off the frame with a single and later scored on a Baker Hodge hit. But Pinson Valley was unable to secure the shutdown inning, allowing Cullman two more runs in the bottom half.
Jordan went 3 1/3 innings, allowing nine hits, eight runs (six earned), and three walks. Shelton Clevenger went the rest of the way, pitching the final 3 2/3 innings. The Bearcats scored runs in each of the first five innings.
Scott dominated on the hill for the Bearcats, improving his record to 13-1 on the season. He went all seven innings and gave up a single run on six hits with two walks and five strikeouts. He has now gone 11 appearances without a loss.
Hunter Davidson took the hill for Pinson Valley in game two, and pitched a solid contest with the exception of a single inning. Cullman jumped on Davidson for four runs in the first inning, as Cuello cleared the bases with a hit and Carter Bowen produced an RBI double.
The Indians threatened in the second inning by loading the bases, but could not push a run across until the sixth, when Jody Graves ripped a double down the first base line to drive in a run and Jacob Brown grounded out to score another.
Any hopes of a comeback were dashed in Cullman’s next at-bat. With Davidson still on the mound, a leadoff walk led to a two-run homer from Cole Collins, his 14th of the season. Collins would be the final hitter Davidson saw, bringing his final line to six innings pitched, 10 hits, six runs, two walks, and five strikeouts. Blake Mayes got the final three outs, surrendering an additional run.
Heatherly was unhittable for much of the game for Cullman, as he struck out 11 batters in his complete game victory. He gave up five hits and two runs to go along with a pair of walks.
“I can’t be more proud of these guys,” Chappell said. “One thing that separates us is that we don’t just beat people on pure talent. We either play harder or are tougher and have more grit. Tonight, that wasn’t enough.”
Cullman has not lost a game this postseason leading up to its championship appearance, outscoring its opponents 76-12 in eight playoff contests.
Despite Pinson Valley not being ranked in the top ten while the other three semifinalists hold the top three slots in the class, Chappell believes that his program should make a deep playoff run each season.
“Now we’re in the conversation every year,” he said. “We expect to be back here next year. We are by no means satisfied with just being here. We fully expected to come in here and win today.”
For the seniors, their career came to an abrupt end on Friday. But that does not change the dynamic and chemistry that allowed the team to bond and improve as the season wore on.
“I love these guys,” Hodge said. “I’ve grown up playing with them all my life. We always had fun with everything that we did.
“I learned to never give up and keep playing hard. That’s what we did this year.”
Chappell was named Jefferson County coach of the year on Thursday, but refused to take any of the credit. While proud of the fact, he admitted that there were many personal obstacles.
“I kept trying to change (this team) into what I wanted them to be and that wasn’t working. This group is a loose group. Sometimes I lose focus of it, but this game is supposed to be fun. This group challenged me in more ways than one,” he said.
Baseball coaches from schools within the Jefferson County school system vote on the award.
“It’s truly an honor for me,” Chappell said. “If you look at it, our county is about as good as it’s ever been. We had some really good coaches and really good teams this year.”
On the final night of baseball for the 2015 edition of the Pinson Valley baseball team, Chappell made clear the true significance of any individual accolade.
“It’s a team thing.”