By Mike London
Daniel Wagner, Rudy Brown, Walker Snow and their South Rowan Legion teammates rewrote record books and left behind permanent memories this summer.
Coach David Wright’s team finished 26-10, tied for second in the regular season, came within one out of qualifying for the state tournament and set the bar high for all the teams that follow.
South’s previous best record was 19-15 in 2003.”I think right now it’s just tough for everybody,” said Wagner, a second baseman who had the best offensive player in South history. “But maybe a couple years down the road when we look back on it, we’ll see that we were the underdog coming into this whole thing anyway. Nobody expected us to come close to doing what we did.”A reasonable goal for South each year is to be competitive.
But during this summer’s 14-2 stretch that included a playoff sweep of defending Area III champion Kannapolis, South wasn’t decent, it was good.
The talent wasn’t overwhelming ó South’s had more power and more speed in the past. But the chemistry was right and Wright could rely on the most effective four-man pitching rotation South’s ever had until Chase Deal was hurt. If Deal stays healthy, South fans are probably making travel plans to Garner right now.
“I’m proud of us as a team,” said Brown, a 6-foot-5 lefty who started twice and relieved twice in the Randolph series. “That’s the way we played this last series ó we played as a team. I think we played as hard as we could possibly play. There were times we could have played better, but we kept our heads up and came to the ballpark ready to play every day. I think that’s what made us so good.”
When Gary Ritchie, Ernie Faw and the rest rolled the dice and started a Legion program in 1996, the idea wasn’t to win state titles or even to be good.
The dream was just to allow South Rowan High boys, who always had been sprinkled among Kannapolis, Mooresville and Rowan County, a chance to keep playing together in the summer.
Ritchie has never lost sight of the fact that one of the state’s best Legion programs is a dozen miles away. He emulated Rowan as much as possible, built fan support and South slowly rose from doormat to contender.
At first, Legion ball was a rude awakening. South’s high school team was 23-4 in 1996. That summer’s original Legion team went 5-19 and lost 19-5 the first time it entertained Rowan.
The bottom was 3-19 in 1999. But since 2001, South is 116-108.
South had reached the Area III semifinals before with darkhorse clubs in 2001 and 2003, but this summer may have been the first time anyone gave South a ghost of a chance to go the distance to the state tournament.The South Rowan High players got a huge boost from college players Wagner, Brown and Jonathon Basinger, and from Deal, who’s already working for a living. They also got a lift from West Rowan pitcher C.J. Neal and outfielder Brett Huffman and Carson pitchers Snow, Randy Shepherd and Cameron Park.Wagner and Brown broke the program record for homers with 10 apiece. Wagner also broke the single-season records for runs (56), hits (74) and RBIs (56) and put together a 42-game hitting streak dating back to 2006. Wagner’s .474 batting average was second only to David Teal’s .506 in 1998.
Brown broke Andrew Morgan’s single-season record for strikeouts (86), while Snow tied Morgan’s record for wins in a season (seven).
Wagner’s .418 career average is the highest among those who have played more than one season for South. He broke career marks for runs (100), hits (151), RBIs (88) and stolen bases (49).
Brown was a two-way threat. He’s second all-time in home runs (14) and strikeouts (188).
Center fielder Justin Lane, second all-time in hits and third in runs, Snow, Deal, Basinger, Neal and shortstop Matt Ingold also impacted all-time lists.
Wright met with his team for the last time after Friday’s heart-stopping, ninth-inning loss.
“This Randolph series, for a lot of my kids, I think brought out some character or maybe some things they were looking for within themselves,” he said. “For that I’m very proud. I’m very proud and honored to have coached this group of kids.”
Nick Bowton contributed to this story.
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