Chelsea baseball makes history as state runner-up

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

MONTGOMERY – Upending perennial powerhouses Helena and Pelham to win the Class 6A Area 8 championship was special enough, then the Chelsea Hornets went on to win three consecutive postseason baseball series against top-six ranked teams to earn a spot in the Class 6A State Championship series to shock the state; and while the season came to an end in heartbreaking fashion after getting swept by No. 7 Cullman, the Hornets proved to themselves they could exceed what everyone thought was possible for them in 2019—getting to Montgomery for the first time in school history.

“At the beginning of the year, we always talked about Montgomery and getting here,” senior Nolan Forehand said after the loss. “Knowing that we had never been here and setting that goal, it was awesome to achieve. We’re a little sad right now because of the result, but just to get here was amazing.”

Forehand was part of a senior class featuring five players, including Bennett Horton, Will Peacock, Jacob Tinnell and Turner Griffin, and all of them played a major impact on making this season so special.

Going into the 2019 postseason, the Chelsea Hornets had arguably the toughest path as an unranked team with matchups against three consecutive top six teams, including No. 1 and No. 2 in back-to-back weeks. The Hornets earned those series wins and a spot in the championship series, and despite the outcome, it was a successful run and a season that sets the standard moving forward.

That run, however, wouldn’t have been possible without the seniors, and their decision making collectively.

“All of our guys on our team look toward our seniors,” head coach Michael Stallings said. “They’ve carried us and have had a big stake in our program I’ve always tried to include them in all of the decisions that impact our program, because I tell them it’s their program. I wanted them to feel like it truly was their team so I made an emphasis to include them in everything.”

Without that decision making from the seniors, the Hornets may have not even made history by advancing to the fourth round of the playoffs for the first time or the championship series for the first time, because it was a decision that they made as a group in the third round of the playoffs that propelled them on.

Before a decisive game three against No. 1 ranked Russell County, the seniors went up to Stallings and told him they wanted freshman Reid Gongwer to get the start with their season on the line.

“I told them ‘I wouldn’t have him with us if I didn’t have confidence in his ability to get on the mound and go. This is y’alls team and if that’s what y’all want, he’s starting on the mound,’” Stallings said.

Gongwer went out and pitched a complete game allowing just five hits and three runs with two strikeouts to lead the Hornets to a 6-3 victory and to the fourth round of the playoffs for the first time in school history.

“That was a really big point in our postseason,” Stallings said. “The impact that had on our program is what allowed us to play the way we did against Hillcrest.”

The Hornets went on to sweep No. 2 Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa the following week to take advance to continue a historic run on to the state championship series.

Waiting for Chelsea in the title game was another ranked team in the Bearcats, who have won five state championships in school history, while the Hornets had never experienced that same fortune.

During the first game, Connor Ball was lights out and took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of a scoreless game that had lasted two days thanks to a weather delay after the first inning of play on Thursday night.

His no-hitter and the game were spoiled, however, in the seventh on a double from Brennen Norton. One batter later, Norton scored after an error at shortstop led to the ball trickling into the outfield and him crossing the plate for the game-winning run in a 1-0 game.

“I was actually more nervous at the start of the game,” Ball, a sophomore, said after the loss. “As the game went on, I felt no pressure and knew the defense had my back.”

It was a tough break for the Hornets, who had played a spectacular game, but came up short.

Following that difficult first game, Chelsea had to come back and try to win the second game of the night to force a decisive game three on Saturday.

Through the first four innings of play, the teams were knotted at 3-3 and Chelsea was in good shape. But then, in the top of the fifth, Cullman’s offense caught fire.

The Bearcats broke the tie by stringing together a single, triple and single early in the inning to take a 5-3 lead, before then adding two more on a two-RBI single that put them up 7-3.

An inning later, Cullman added two more runs on a sac fly and a walk with the bases loaded to extend that lead to 9-3, and all of a sudden the game had gotten away from the Hornets.

They did add one more run in the bottom of the sixth, but Cullman closed out the final inning with ease to cement the Class 6A State Championship.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our players,” Stallings said. “It was our first time here, and the nerves were there, but this team and the seniors played so well. Even after that one-run loss, I like how we came back in the second game. We had been in that situation twice in the postseason and responded, and I thought we responded tonight, but we just couldn’t stop their momentum and that’s a hats off to them.”

For this team, it was all about goals, and the list started with the area championship, which they accomplished, and ended with a state championship appearance, which they accomplished. It will sting for the time being, but this team made history, and the seniors have set a new standard for a great returning cast of players, including three great pitchers on the mound.

“We’re very goal oriented,” Stallings said. “Winning the area was one of our first goals. To not only win our area but sweep it was a big momentum swing carrying us down the stretch and into the playoffs. It gave us a lot of confidence. Then, in the playoffs, I kept telling them every week, ‘we have five weeks left in our season, four weeks left, three weeks left. I was just getting them to believe and they bought in.”

Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.