Rowan plays Wilkes

SALISBURY — Let’s start the second round of the American Legion playoffs with a pretty tough trivia question.

Name the Rowan County team that lost only one playoff game — yet didn’t win a state championship.

Stumped? Well, the correct answer is the 2005 team that was disqualified from the playoffs shortly after Rowan won its first-round playoff series with Wilkes County three games to one.

We bring that up because when Wilkes comes to Newman Park for a playoff game tonight at 7 p.m, it will mark the first time Rowan has encountered Wilkes in the postseason since that deflating summer of 2005. That was the summer a mystery man known as “Will Clark” turned Rowan in to the powers-that-be for violating a rule it had no idea it was violating.

West Rowan outfielder Zeb Link lived a few miles closer to Davie County High than to Salisbury High. That technically made him Mocksville Legion property, even though Mocksville had never claimed a player who lived in Rowan County. Rowan was pronounced guilty of not having gotten a release for Link from Mocksville and got the death penalty. Link was ruled ineligible, and Rowan, which had won 10 of its last 12 and was surging toward another state-tournament berth, had the plug pulled on its season.

“You can’t blame Zeb at all,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said back in 2005. “It’s not like he was a kid we picked up on waivers. He goes to West, and he’s just playing with the same kids he’s always played with and the kids he played with last year in Junior Legion.”

It’s common for West Rowan players to play for Mocksville now — some do so every year — but it’s not a possibility that Link had ever even considered.

Ironically, Link had the best stretch of his baseball life in that last Wilkes series. He made only four outs in four games. He stole seven bases, hit two homers and scored nine runs.

The top of that 2005 Rowan lineup was often Link, Justin Roland, Brett Hatley, Kevin McMillan, Craige Lyerly and Ross Steedley. Link, Hatley and McMillan went on to be good players at Catawba. Roland and Steedley were starters for the Charlotte 49ers. Lyerly, an All-American at Catawba, and Division I pitcher Keegan Linza were draft picks and played pro ball. That was a really good team, a team that had similarities with the surging 2013 Rowan squad.

The current Rowan team was 9-7 on June 19. Now it’s 19-7, so the math is easy. That’s 10 wins in a row, and if you’re good enough to win 10 straight, you’re a threat to qualify for the state tournament.

Like the 2005 team, no one was high on this team at the start, not with East, West, Salisbury and North all exiting the high school playoffs in the first or second rounds, but you can’t underestimate Gantt’s impact on a team and you can’t underestimate the defensive impact of having three college guys up the middle in shortstop Ashton Fleming, catcher Nathan Fulbright and second baseman Chase Hathcock.

Rowan doesn’t have a lot of power outside of first baseman Chance Bowden (three homers, 33 RBIs), but it has enough offense. Usually, Gantt’s lineup card includes eight .300 hitters. Bowden is well over .400, while center fielder/pitcher Brian Bauk is right at the .400 mark. Bauk and right fielder Taylor Garczysnki can fly on the bases.

Garczysnki has the lowest batting average among the regulars, but he’s swinging the bat as well as anyone right now.

“When it’s not going well, and it didn’t go well for Garczynski for a long time, the easy thing to do is drop your head, but he didn’t,” Gantt said. “He’s kept competing all summer. All these guys have. They’ve make mistakes, but they’ve never stopped competing. That’s made them a fun team to watch.”

Bauk (5-0) and Connor Johnson (4-0) have anchored the pitching staff. Lefty Justin Evans (2-0), who was supposed to pitch Saturday’s game with Concord that got washed out, will be on the bump tonight against Wilkes. Evans turned in a strong outing when Rowan won at Southern Rowan 6-3.

Bauk, who threw eight innings Thursday, could be ready for Tuesday’s Game 2, while Johnson, who worked eight innings Friday, could take the ball for Game 3 in this best-of-five series.

Clint Veal (2-1) could be a factor in the series. The youngsters in the bullpen — Heath Mitchem (4-0), Ryan Jones (2-0), Riley Myers (three saves) and Brandon White — have shown maturity beyond their years.

No one knows much about Wilkes (4-7), which doubled its wins total for the season by beating Mocksville 2-0 in a rain-shortened series. Wilkes scored often to beat Mocksville 13-9 and 8-7. Wilkes’ only two triumphs in the regular season came against the Mooresville Legends.

Wilkes played a handful of regular-season games, presumably because it’s expensive for Area III teams to travel to Wilkes.

The next series, the third-round crossover series that determines state-tournament berths, is set to start June 14. If Rowan gets past Wilkes, it would be matched up with a good Northern Division team — Kernersville (23-4), High Point (18-7) or Burlington-Graham (11-8).

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