Junior Legion: West in state tournament today

MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan’s debut in Junior Legion baseball has produced one of the eight state-tournament qualifiers.

The program came out the light-blue this summer, but it will take the field today at East Forsyth High in a 4:30 p.m. game in the state tournament. Runner-up in Area III to Kernersville, West (17-12) opens against Area II champion Swansboro.

“Some coaches and dads talked about doing this and got things together in a couple of meetings — and, well, here we are,” chuckled organizer and assistant coach Jeff Link. “We had 25 kids sign up and try out, so there was plenty of interest. It’s been a fantastic experience for all of us.”

Link’s nephew, Jesse, is the coach. The West braintrust also includes assistants Scott Graham and Richard Luther and AD Jeff Bernhardt.

It’s essentially a youthful West Rowan High team, with 16 of the 17 players enrolled at West. Third baseman Micah Marsh is the only rising senior. He and center fielder Margarito Romero have seen some varsity action for the Falcons. Four players are really young — rising freshmen. The rest of the Falcons were jayvees in 2013.

The one player not from West is pitcher/first baseman Hunter Shepherd. He’s home-schooled and is a product of the Greater Cabarrus Stallions program.

“What we had is a lot of kids who have known each other a very long time,” Jeff Link explained. “They played travel ball together and Little League ball together, and now we’ve been able to give them a chance to play Legion ball together.”

There’s some talent, but cohesion probably has had as much to do with the team’s success as anything.

“I know everyone likes to paint a pretty picture, but these guys really do get along,” Link said. “The chemistry has been amazing. It’s not like we’re breaking up arguments every day.”

There have been challenges. There’s more to starting a Legion program from scratch than you might think.

“There are costs,” Jeff Link said. “Things like uniforms and getting the program incorporated. Jeff and Lynn Bernhardt have been great at handling all the bookwork and computer work.”

The team practices indoors at Extreme Performance in Salisbury when the weather isn’t cooperative, but games and regular practices are at the West Rowan High Field.

“We talked to (principal) Jamie Durant, (baseball coach) Chad Parker and (AD) Todd Bell before we went into this because we knew we had to have a place to play to do this right,” Link said. “We want this to be an every-year thing. We want West Rowan American Legion to still be rolling five years from now — and 20 years from now.”

West Rowan High assistant Ryan Shelton has been been instrumental in field maintenance.

“Ryan’s been a godsend,” Link said. “All the coaches have jobs, but a lot of times we’d get to the field and Ryan already had everything ready to go.”

The wet summer impacted finances, West prudently scheduled extra games with Rowan County, South Rowan, Carson and Mooresville with the expectation of drawing nice crowds, but it lost six home dates to rainouts.

The playoff series with Concord proved exceptionally difficult weather-wise, but the teams were able to complete two games at West on a soaked Saturday because of general cooperation and the quick-drying solution known as Turface.

“Finding Turface isn’t easy,” Link said. “We were fortunate that (Catawba softball coach) Nan Whitley helped us out that day, and we had about 14 moms and dads and fans who worked on the field for hours to get those two games in.”

Link said all the area coaches have had to bond this summer to get games in between storms. Some games have had to be moved to a less saturated venue at short notice. When West won the decisive game of a second-round playoff series with Rowan County, that game was scheduled for West but was moved to Staton Field where conditions were playable.

West’s players, 8-2 in conference play, have won steadily rain or shine. The roster includes Shepherd, Marsh, Romero, Bryan Ketchie, Austin Love, Brett Graham, Caleb Link, Noah Teeter, Brandon Walton, Jonathan Luther, Tyler Poteat, Tyler Bernhardt, Hunter Bernhardt, Cody LaRue, Wyatt Martin, Kacey Otto and Lee Poteat.

“People ask who our best guys are, and I tell them we don’t have any horses,” Link said. “We’ve just got a lot of good players. It’s taken all 17 of these guys to get where we are now.”

Where West is now is the state tournament.

The team practiced Thursday evening. Today, parents and players met at West as they always do, piled into vans and cars and headed north for more baseball.

Ketchie will probably pitch today, with Shepherd or Love getting the call Saturday in West’s second game in the double-elimination event.

“We sat down and set some goals before the season,” Link said. “We’ve made all of them but one.”

The one goal that’s left isn’t hard to figure out, but West has a tough road ahead. Undefeated Area IV champ South Caldwell is probably the favorite.

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