Helena falls to Auburn, Cullman on opening day

By GRAHAM BROOKS / Staff Writer

HOOVER – After coming up just short of winning a second consecutive Class 6A baseball state championship in 2018, the Helena Huskies have turned the page to a brand-new season where a new set of players will try and leave their mark on what’s now become a well-respected prep baseball program in the state of Alabama.

Helena began its fifth season in program history on Monday, Feb. 18 under head coach P.J. Guy and just like the previous seasons, the Huskies challenged themselves by opening with two of the top high school baseball teams in the state of Alabama.

Helena was faced with the challenge of taking on defending 7A state champion Auburn, and 6A perennial power Cullman in a double-header at the Hoover Met Complex where the Huskies fell to Auburn 5-1, followed by a 10-7 loss in game two to Cullman. Below are recaps from both games.

Game 1. Auburn 5 – Helena 1

To open the season, Helena opted to go with Jack Freeman on the bump, while Auburn countered with Nic Owen as Freeman held the Auburn offense in check the first four innings.

Freeman held the Tigers to just two hits over four innings before exiting the game.

For Auburn, Owen was effective in that he allowed no hits over 2.2 innings pitched, but he struggled with his command, giving up three walks in that same timeframe.

The problem for Helena was not taking advantage of the free bases with one example coming in the bottom of the third inning.

Owen allowed a leadoff walk, followed by a Riley Marks sacrifice bunt to move the runner into scoring position. With one out, Owen was able to strikeout Luke Stamba to record the second out, but followed it with another walk to Brody Moss to put runners at first and second as Owen was relieved by Anthony Imperio following the walk.

With a chance for a two-out rally, Helena was unable to push any runs across as they grounded out to end the inning.

As the game remained scoreless heading into the fifth inning, that’s where Auburn did all of its damage.

Will Griffith entered the game as the new pitcher for the Huskies and surrendered back-to-back singles to start the top of the fifth inning.

An error and a steal of home gave Auburn a 1-0 lead followed by a single to score Kimbrell Nappier to extend the Tigers’ lead to 2-0.

With one out in the inning, Griffith would walk three of the next four batters he faced as the final walk pushed a run across to make it 3-0.

The final two runs of the inning came on a Jake Waters single to score Cally Chizik and Jackson Arnold as Auburn completed a five-run fifth inning.

Over the next three innings, Imperio and Auburn pitcher Matthew Rhodes combined to allow no hits as Helena’s lone run of the game came in the bottom of the fifth inning on a fielder’s choice after Imperio allowed a walk and hit two Helena batters to load the bases.

Rhodes would finish out the game for Auburn by recording the final eight outs, ending the game on a double play to record the save and preserve the 5-1 win for the Tigers.

For Helena, Griffith was given the loss after surrendering five runs on four hits in one inning of work.

Game 2. Cullman 10 – Helena 7

In game two of the doubleheader, Helena was able to muster more offense by combining for nine hits as a team, but unfortunately, Cullman was able to match the Huskies’ success at the plate as a big first inning helped propel the Bearcats to a three-run win.

In the first inning, the Bearcats were able to score six runs all with two outs off Helena starting pitcher Landon Leake.

Cullman took the lead on a two-RBI single by Brady Patterson, followed an RBI triple by Dylon Wallace to make it 3-0.

The next four batters for the Bearcats recorded a double, walk, single and a double to extend the lead to 6-0 before a ground out ended the inning.

Despite trailing big early, Helena fought back with its own big inning in the bottom of the second.

A single by Kellen Watkins followed by a Blake Howard triple put Helena on the board to make it 6-1. Two batters later, Marks hit an RBI single to cut the deficit to 6-2.

Later in the inning, John Stephen Heacock came through with a big at bat with two outs to record a two-RBI single to score both Marks and Moss to cut Cullman’s lead to 6-4.

In the top of the third inning, Seth Gregory came in to relieve Leake after he allowed a leadoff walk and a hit by pitch.

The Bearcats took advantage of the two awarded bases as AJ Miller hit a two-RBI triple to right field to make it an 8-4 game.

The next Cullman batter hit an RBI single to cap off the three-run inning to make it 9-4 Bearcats.

After Cullman went up 10-4, Helena’s final three runs in the game came in the bottom of the fifth on a ground out and two-RBI double by Stamba.

Despite cutting the deficit to three runs, Helena was held scoreless over the final two innings as the Bearcats got the win.

At the plate, both Stamba and Heacock led the Huskies going 2-for-3 with two RBIs.