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Following fine freshman seasons, former Russellville standouts reuniting at Shelton State

As soon as Shelton State finished off a 5-4 win over Central Alabama on Saturday, May 13, Austin Bohannon started to get that old familiar feeling.

Granted, this was Ozark, Alabama, not Montgomery. It was the Alabama Community College Conference state tournament, not the Class 5A state playoffs. But those minor differences were merely details. The things that really mattered were very much the same.

Backs against the wall. Facing elimination. Season on the line. Do or die.

Win, or go home.

“It was familiar,” said Bohannon, a freshman pitcher for the Buccaneers, who had lost their ACCC tournament opener 6-3 to Wallace-Dothan the previous day. “It was just like being back in high school, when we played in the state finals.”

One year earlier, Bohannon, then a senior at Russellville High School, had rescued the Golden Tigers with a career-defining performance in the 5A state championship series against Faith Academy. The Rams had routed Russellville 9-1 in Game 1, putting the Golden Tigers’ hopes for a repeat in serious jeopardy, but Bohannon brought them back from the brink and evened the series with a two-hit shutout in Game 2, a 3-0 win.

Last month in Ozark, it was that outing that immediately sprang to mind for Bohannon, a 6’4, 220-pound left-hander who was due to start Shelton State’s next game—another elimination affair against Snead State the following day.

“Instantly. As soon as we won the game [against Central Alabama], that’s what I was thinking about,” Bohannon said. “I woke up that [Sunday] morning about five o’clock and did a workout. We had a ten o’clock game, but I was awake at five. I was already thinking about the game.”

In a Montgomery frame of mind, Bohannon came through yet again with the longest—and undoubtedly the most clutch—outing of his brief college career. He went the full nine innings against Snead, scattering nine hits and allowing just two earned runs in a 7-4 win that kept the Buccaneers’ season alive.

“We were playing with a chip on our shoulder,” Bohannon said. “I just went out there and tried to keep the momentum going and keep everybody in the game. I don’t know how many strikeouts I had, but they were putting the ball in play. Everybody was really active, and our defense was making a lot of plays.

“We knew that could be our last game, so everybody was playing really hard. I was just trying to make pitches and miss barrels.”

Bohannon, in fact, finished with just three strikeouts, but he only issued one walk and induced enough weak contact with the late movement on his two-seam fastball to get the job done. By day’s end, he had thrown a career-high 136 pitches.

“And every single one of them was a two-seamer,” Bohannon said. “I didn’t throw a single four-seamer. No curveballs, no changeups. That was the only time all year I did anything like that.”

It was also the only time all year that Shelton State coach Bobby Sprowl called upon Bohannon to go nine innings. Typically the Game 4 starter for the Buccaneers in each of their conference series, Bohannon was accustomed to pitching the second game of a doubleheader—a seven-inning game. The chance to go back out and take the ball for the eighth—and then the ninth—was a treat for the freshman.

“It was awesome,” Bohannon said. “It felt like big-league ball.”

Shelton went on to win two more games in Ozark before its state tournament run ended with a loss to Faulkner, but Bohannon’s gutsy complete game against Snead was a fitting way for him to cap off a fine first year at the college level. He finished his freshman season second on the team in innings pitched (57) and first among the four starters in ERA (3.00), posting a 4-4 record in 12 starts.
“It went awesome,” said Bohannon, who allowed 50 hits, struck out 38 batters and walked 20 on the season. “I went down there and fell in love with the game, just playing and practicing every day. I had a pretty big role on the pitching staff, got to be one of our starters and ate up a lot of innings. It went as good as I could have hoped for my freshman year.”

In the Buccaneers’ rotation this past season, Bohannon pitched right behind fellow Russellville graduate Jacob Green, who signed with Western Kentucky earlier this month after a successful two-year stint in Tuscaloosa. Bohannon need not fret, however; another former Golden Tiger is on the way.

Austin Kitterman—who followed up Bohannon’s Game 2 gem against Faith Academy in the 2016 state finals with a complete game win of his own in the Game 3 clincher—said on Sunday that he is transferring to Shelton State after a strong freshman season at Union University. Like Bohannon (and like Green before them), Kitterman hopes to use his time with Sprowl and the Buccaneers as a springboard to a Division One career.

“That’s the biggest thing for me—a chance to live out my dream of playing Division One baseball,” said Kitterman, who led the staff at Union and ranked in the Top 10 in the Gulf South Conference this past season with a 2.89 ERA. “I was at a great program. Union is a great school and a great place, and I know people are gonna be like, ‘Why would you leave?’ But there are a lot of things that go into it.

“It’s really hard to explain. Some doors opened up, and I prayed about it a lot. I feel like this is the best thing for me. It felt like the right decision for me with where I’m at in my life right now. Plus, having my best friend there, too, doesn’t hurt. It’ll be fun. I’m excited.”

As a freshman at Union (a Division Two school in Jackson, Tennessee), Kitterman established himself as one of the top relievers in the GSC. He led the Bulldogs with 28 appearances and finished third on the team with 62.1 innings pitched. He went 1-3 with three saves and struck out 48 batters, walking just 18 and giving up 54 hits.

Kitterman made his college debut in Union’s season-opener on February 4, holding Ouachita Baptist to one earned run and two hits in four innings to earn the save in a 7-4 win. A month later, he recorded his longest outing of the season, holding Delta State to two earned runs in six innings of solid relief in a 10-8 loss.

Kitterman’s best outing might have come on March 24, when he struck out seven batters and did not allow an earned run in 3.2 innings of relief against West Alabama. He picked up his first collegiate win on April 2 with 3.2 innings of scoreless relief against West Florida, and one week later he held Lee University to two hits and zero earned runs in 4.2 innings in a 6-5 win.

Heading into a mid-April series at home against UNA, Kitterman had not allowed an earned run in his last 17.2 innings. His lone appearance against the Lions, however, did not go well: Seven runs and three homers allowed in 2.1 innings in a 14-2 loss.

“I was riding a real high going into that weekend,” Kitterman said. “[UNA] had offered me a scholarship [coming out of high school], so it was like I was destined to go out there and do great against them. That didn’t happen. I made some really good pitches, and they hit them really well. I made some bad pitches, and they hit them out of the ballpark.
“It’s college baseball. If you make a bad pitch, they’ll make you pay. Everybody can hit—that’s the reason they’re there.”

To his credit, Kitterman regrouped and immediately righted the ship, allowing just two earned runs on seven hits and striking out 10 batters in 12 innings over his final six appearances. The rough outing against UNA was just a footnote to an otherwise excellent freshman season.

“For me, honestly, that was the first bad outing I had,” Kitterman said. “I was blessed that it came later on in the season. At the same time, it frustrated me really bad. I hate losing. I hate failing. It fired me up and made me work. It made me put my nose back to the grind and go back and work my tail off. I had to go back to basics and figure out what I was doing wrong.

“I think I finished the season on a good note. If the UNA series doesn’t happen, my freshman year looks a lot better. But it happened, and I’m glad it happened. It made me a better pitcher.”

Kitterman is also a different pitcher than he was at Russellville—at least in one respect.

“Well, I throw side-arm now,” he said. “I’m about three-quarters. I’m throwing my sinker, slider, changeup—no fastball. I’m looking to disrupt timing. I’m still a bulldog when I go out there. I’m still gonna give my best effort every time. I’m still that same guy. I’m still the most competitive person on the field.”

His new—and old—teammate at Shelton State might give him a run for his money in that department. Bohannon has already been working four or five days a week this summer with trainer/pitching coach Jeff Henry of Florence in an effort to add a few miles an hour to his fastball, which typically sits in the 83-85 range.

“I really want to get my legs and core and my shoulder stronger,” Bohannon said, “so I can up my velocity. I’d like to add velocity without losing movement.”

That natural late movement on his two-seamer (down and away from right-handed batters) is what makes Bohannon so tough to square up—even for college hitters. He’s also adapted his secondary pitches, trading in a slow, backdoor curve for a harder breaking ball with “a little more bite to it” to try and generate a few more swings and misses.

As Bohannon works on refining and improving each of his pitches, he does so with the knowledge that he won’t have to worry about which one to throw in a certain situation.

“Coach Sprowl calls pitches,” Bohannon said, “and he knows when to throw what and what to throw who. I’ve never seen anything like it. I just follow what he tells me.”

Sprowl, who pitched in the major leagues before embarking on a long and successful career as the head coach at Shelton State, is renowned for his ability to develop pitchers and prepare them for the next level—a fact that wasn’t lost on Kitterman when he was weighing his transfer options.

“He’s already known as one of the best—if not the best—JUCO coaches in a long time,” Kitterman said of Sprowl. “They had eight sophomores last year, and all eight of those guys are going somewhere to play ball. That’s his job, getting those guys to the next level.

“I think I can come in and have a big role and possibly be a starter. Coach Sprowl can get me to wherever I want to go. I was really impressed with the program and the success he’s had there and the amount of guys he’s got coming back.”

That includes Bohannon, who is already itching to begin his second season in Tuscaloosa.

“I’m ready for it to start back,” he said on Sunday afternoon. “I was talking to one of the guys on the team today. I’ve never really missed practicing before, but I’m ready to get back out there.”

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