By Mike London
LANDIS ó South Rowan High’s baseball team made a playoff run in 2003, so South’s American Legion team was strapped for players when the season opened at Mooresville.
An eighth-grader trotted out to left field for South in the bottom of the first inning. The kid was so tiny fans trained binoculars on left just to make sure coach Allen Wilson hadn’t forgotten to put someone out there.
The little guy batted ninth, knocked one off the fence his first time up and didn’t act like it was a big deal when he whooshed into second base.
The eighth-grade rookie was Justin Lane, and he’s still around four years later. Only now he plays center field and leads off.
“When I played that first game at Mooresville I was 5-foot-7, 130 pounds,” Lane said. “The thing is I’m still 5-7, 130, but I’ve gotten a little faster and a little stronger every year. I may not be a real strong guy in the weight room, but anyone who tries to wrestle me, I can take them down.”
Seth Graham, the head coach at Wilkes Community College, is a Mooresville assistant coach. He witnessed Lane’s first Legion hit and was pleased to sign Lane last week to play ball at WCC.
“It seems like Justin has played for South forever,” Graham said. “He’s always been there for them defensively ó left-center or right-center, he’s tracking the ball down. He’s also a hard-nosed hitter, and we believe he can be one heck of a No. 9 man, maybe a leadoff for us.”
Graham is having considerable recruiting success in the area. As Lane puts it, Wilkes is a “cool school.”
It has a scenic mountainside location. It’s far enough away for local players to feel like they’re on their own, yet close enough for families to watch them play.
Graham’s team was 20-32 this year after the program posted 15 wins in 2005 and 2006 put together. Several Rowan players, led by Cy Young and Brett Mulkey, helped Wilkes improve to its third-best record ever. Graham believes Lane can help Wilkes climb some more.
Graham won’t have to worry about effort from Lane, a high-energy guy who subtracts runs with his glove and adds them with his legs.
Lane creates havoc when he’s on base the same way Justin Roland puts pressure on defenders when he gets on at the top of Rowan County’s lineup.
“Lane runs like a deer, will go get the ball and has a great arm,” South Rowan High coach Linn Williams said. “Bigger than anything else, he has a burning desire to win. I was around him for four years in football and baseball, and he always was a leave-it-on-the field kind of guy.”
Despite his size, Lane was a standout defensive back and part-time receiver for the Raiders. He had seven career interceptions, including three in a game against East Rowan his junior year.
“I could’ve had five that night,” Lane said. “I knocked one down because it was fourth-and-15. I got clobbered by a teammate when I was intercepting another one.”
When South beat R.J. Reynolds to give new head coach Jason Rollins his first victory last fall, Lane pulled in a 71-yard touchdown pass from Ivan Corriher for one of the night’s pivotal plays.
“That was the fastest I’ve ever run in my life,” Lane said. “Reynolds always has guys who are up there in the state track meet, but they didn’t catch me.”
Lane has used his wheels to score 68 runs for South’s Legion team. He’s fifth all-time. He also has 93 hits and should become only the fourth player in South’s 12-year history to surpass 100.
Lane stole 14 bases and batted .286 for the high school team his senior year, although his batting average didn’t reflect his value. He also walked 16 times for an on-base percentage at .412, and he scored 20 runs.
All the diving catches he made and the runs he saved, they didn’t make the boxscores either.
Still, Lane’s always been a more productive player in Legion than high school, and he thinks he knows why.
“It’s not the better weather, and playing every day doesn’t really have anything to do with it either,” he said. “The reason I play better is that the competition’s better. I like the competition.”
The competition will be strong at Wilkes, which competes in the Region X junior college circuit with perennial powers such as Spartanburg Methodist, Louisburg and Surry.
South Legion coach David Wright is confident Lane can be successful.
“There’s no kid in this league I’d rather have in center field,” he said.
Wright is convinced Lane will get stronger and faster in college.
“Justin’s stealing just off quickness now, but he’ll become an even better baserunner at the college level,” he said. “He can be a very exciting player for Wilkes. There’s a lot of things out there for him if he keeps working.”
Walks are often doubles for Lane ó or triples. Kannapolis pitcher Robbie Gurley tried to pick Lane off after a leadoff walk on Friday. When the throw to first got away, Lane wasn’t satisfied with second base. He was sprinting to third.
Wright would like to see Lane walk even more, but it hasn’t been easy for him to develop a take-a-strike mentality. He’s an aggressive hitter with surprising power. He can can drive the ball into the gaps, and he’s even hit three Legion home runs.
“I do have a pretty good eye,” Lane said. “I can pick up what kind of pitch it is pretty quick and pick out the pitches I can drive.”
But mostly it’s Lane’s blurring speed down the first-base line that draws attention. He’s probably set unofficial South records for bunt hits and infield hits.
The speed comes from his father, Leon Bare, who played shortstop at South Rowan High. Bare stole 24 bases and drove in 33 runs in 1984-85. In ’85, he batted .403 for the Raiders.
“I’ve never outrun my father,” Lane said. “But he just had neck surgery, so maybe I can take him now.”
That’s been Lane’s mentality since he was an eighth-grader.
Always looking for competition.
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or email@example.com.
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