Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 30, 2007

West Rowan’s Weston Church pitched a complete game and knocked in the first run in an American Legion victory over Kannapolis on Tuesday.
East Rowan’s Ross Steedley did his usual efficient job catching Church and made the sailing smooth for his buddy with a three-run homer in the first inning.
Catawba signee Church and future Charlotte 49er Steedley make a great team.
They’ll team up again in a few weeks when they accept identical Mark Norris Awards at Newman Park.
There are co-winners of the Norris Rowan County Player of the Year award for only the second time and first time since 1995 when East catcher Brad Rye and North Rowan pitcher Sandy Moore shared the accolade.
“It’s a big honor,” Church said. “Ross and I are pretty close friends, and when you think of all the great players who have won it, it makes you proud to be on the list.”
Mark Norris, a catcher, served as Salisbury baseball coach Ron Raper’s captain in 1975 and 1976.
“Mark was my first captain, a good boy, a leader, a kid you could always count on,” said Raper, now Carson athletics director.
Norris was a 19-year-old student at Pembroke when he was killed in an automobile accident in 1977, a few days before Christmas.
The Norris family, led by Mark’s brother, Eric, who played baseball at Boyden in the 1960s, honors his memory by providing a tremendous trophy every spring. The tradition began in 1978 when the trophy was established as an annual award for Salisbury High’s baseball MVP.
In 1983, the Norris Award expanded into a county-wide Player of the Year honor determined by coaches and the Post’s sports staff.
The first Norris Award winner who did not attend Salisbury was East catcher Chris Cauble in 1985.
Cauble coached Church at West before moving on to start Carson’s program.
Thirty years ago, six months prior to Mark Norris’ death, East infielder Derry Steedley, Ross’ father, was named Rowan County Player of the Year.
There were five leading candidates for the 2007 Norris Award. North’s Jason Ridenhour, Carson’s Walker Snow and Salisbury’s Alex Britt starred at the plate and on the mound and earned praise from their coaches.
In the end, it came down to Church or Steedley. Three coaches, including West’s David Wright, endorsed Church’s powerful numbers. Three coaches, including East’s Brian Hightower, rated Steedley above Church.
Two coaches who named Church as their first choice, added that Steedley was one of the best catchers and best leaders they’d ever seen.
Steedley’s intangible value obviously transcended his stats, which were very good, just not as staggering as those compiled by Church.
Co-winners were fine with the Post, but in a call to Eric Norris, I outlined our dilemma. A split vote, two terrific players, but only one trophy. I explained if the Post had to select one winner, the numbers pointed to Church.
Norris was a hero. He and his wife talked it over, didn’t hesitate to double their annual generosity and saved us from having to break the deadlock. Both were aware how meaningful this award has become to every baseball player in the county. Both understood the presentation of the Mark Norris Award by the players’ coaches will be a moment Church, Steedley and their families will cherish the rest of their lives.
When Roger Maris chased down Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1961, the most amazing stat was that Maris never received an intentional walk. That was due to Mickey Mantle’s presence in the on-deck circle.
Church was Maris for the Falcons this season ó without Mantle behind him.
Twenty years from now, sportswriters will examine West’s 2007 season and wonder how in the world the Falcons won 15 games. West averaged fewer than four runs per game and was shut out four times.
West’s offense often started and ended with Church. Wright eventually moved shortstop Philip Miclat, a leadoff type but West’s second-best hitter, to cleanup in an attempt to give Church more protection.
It’s not like we had a lot of big sticks we could put around Weston,” Wright said. “For him to do what he did was amazing.”
Church hit .462 with three homers and 14 doubles on his way to the NPC Player of the Year award, but he settled for 18 RBIs because he walked more than 20 times.
North Iredell walked him four straight times after he hit a home run. He homered against Carson, then went 0-for-0 with four walks and two runs scored in the rematch.
“We wouldn’t let Weston beat us, and being in his league, I know everyone in the NPC approached him the same way,” Cauble said.Ridenhour, Britt and Snow put up offensive numbers comparable to Church, but the West senior’s separation came on the mound.
Church went 6-1 on the hill with a microscopic ERA despite a bout with tendinitis at midseason. His loss came in a 2-0 game against Davie County in March in which his defense faltered.
Church’s selection honors the memory of another 19-year-old who died in an auto crash. Former East catcher Tyler Poole was killed in 2004, but not before he provided inspiration for Church’s career.
Poole was Church’s cousin.
“Growing up, Tyler was a big brother figure to me, and I idealized him up through middle school,” Church said.
Steedley’s been an outstanding defensive catcher, running-game stopper and handler of pitchers for three years. He hit .329 this season with two homers and 12 RBIs.
He did just about all his damage where it meant the most ó in the rugged 4A CPC, which included four 20-game winners. He hit .348 in league games. His homers and nine of his RBIs came against CPC opponents.
Steedley had more talent around him than Church, but East’s lineup was softened and Steedley was treated with the same pitch-around respect as Church while Justin Roland and Trey Holmes were on the shelf.
What made Steedley’s season award-worthy was his work on the mound. He was expected to pitch some when the season opened, but no one dreamed he’d take on the role of staff ace after Holmes was injured.
“I’d always pitched some growing up, and the team needed me,” Steedley said.
Steedley was 4-0 in CPC regular-season games to propel East into a tie for second place. He finished 7-3 with a 1.84 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 57 innings and rivaled Church as the county’s best pitcher.
“Ross is a great talent, and it was a pleasure to coach a kid that always worked his tail off to reach his talent level,” Hightower said. “He was an assistant coach with our other catchers, sparked us, led us on and off the field, brought every intangible there is to the table.
“No one expected him to pitch like he did or as many innings as he did, but he did it for his team. He’s just an unbelievable kid.”

Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or