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Catawba wins SAC baseball championship

By Mike London
Salisbury Post
Catawba swept Mars Hill 14-6 and 6-5 on Saturday at Newman Park to claim its first outright SAC championship since 2004.
Coach Jim Gantt was elated with the scoreboard, but he figured what happened prior to the first pitch and between games of the doubleheader mattered even more.
“This is probably the best and most important day I’ve had at Catawba, and it had nothing to do with games,” said Gantt, who manned third base for the Indians in the late 1980s.
Gordon Kirkland Jr. organized a weekend reunion for a cavalcade of Catawba players, and the history of the program unfolded through dozens of stories shared at a pregame banquet.
The theme proclaimed by senior vice president Tom Childress was, “Teammates for a while; friends for life.”
Speakers ranged from Dr. Lamar Dorton (Class of 1948) to Matt Smith, the ironman catcher/pitcher whose guts inspired the 47-win team in 2006.
Gantt must have asked Smith, “Are you sure you’re all right?” 400 times during the 2006 season. Smith always said he was fine, even when he could barely walk.
“If you come to Catawba, it’s not going to be easy and you’re going to get yelled at a little,” Smith stated, as dozens of former Indians nodded. “But you’ll win championships.”
After Dorton and Smith came hilarious and fit former coaches Harvey Stratton and Ray Oxendine. Next on the dais were 1970s outfielder Mike Strejc and 1990s first baseman Todd Blake.
Their audience included Joe Ferebee, who roamed center field at Catawba before World War II intruded, and ex-St. Louis Cardinal Vern Benson, who homered off Brooklyn’s Ralph Branca in 1951, just 15 days before Bobby Thomson got to Branca for a slightly more famous one.
Between games of the doubleheader, alumni marched out to old positions, and it was a moving sight. In the brown dirt next to first base, Aaron Rimer, the redhead who belted the walkoff homer that won a dramatic regional game in 2006, stood near Hall of Famer Big Earl Lentz, who pounded out a 33-game hitting streak in 1955-56 ó a school record that still stands. Catawba history was right there for everyone to savor, with the 2 feet between Lentz and Rimer representing 50 years.
Balls flew out of Newman Park on Saturday, and fans could only wonder what would Big Earl have done if he’d been swinging metal instead of wood. He might have hit safely in 70 in a row.
Catawba starter Alex Fairweather (6-2) permitted four solo homers, three in the second inning alone, but he hung in there through six innings and won the opener to nail down the SAC title.
“I wanted to be out there in the game to clinch the championship,” he said. “Obviously, I left a few balls up early, but you have to keep your composure and pitch your game. My game is keeping it down, and I settled in.”
Catawba (32-14, 16-5) helped Fairweather by piling up 11 runs in the first three innings.
Chad Baker’s two-run double and Matt Kepley’s three-run homer were the big blows. Both are seniors.
Jerry Sands knocked in three runs, Craige Lyerly homered, and David Thomas, who is enjoying a spectacular senior season, homered and scored four times.
“Fairweather limited them to solo shots, and every time they got runs, we came in and put up more,” Thomas said. “This was special right here because it means we’ve accomplished one of our goals. We’ll take that No. 1 seed into the tournament.”
Brett Hatley pitched well in the seventh and eighth for Catawba, and Matt Seabolt, a senior, secured the last three outs of the ballgame.
“It felt good to win this one outright because it’s the first time since I’ve been here,” Seabolt said. “We’ve had some real good teams that didn’t win outright (Catawba shared titles with Tusculum in 2005 and 2006). That shows how good this team is and what it’s capable of. We’re on a good roll now.”
Gantt said Seabolt threw the best he has in a while, and Catawba will need him with the pitching staff thinner than usual with top-notch starter Tim Smith and freshmen Weston Church and Wil Huneycutt on the shelf.
Tim Holmes pitched five shutout innings in the nightcap for Catawba, but the Lions (29-21, 8-12) got back in the game with one sixth-inning swing ó a grand slam by Brian Williams.
The Indians trailed 5-4 heading to their last at-bat, but Sands (.394 batting average) knocked in Thomas (.443) with the tying run,. Then Baker scored the winner on an error.
“This team is starting to peak at a good time,” said pitching coach Thomas Wilson, the horse for Catawba’s 2004 regional qualifier. “Guys are really starting to swing it.”
One guy who is really pounding the ball now, after starting slowly, is shortstop Chris Ahearn, a transfer from Western Carolina. Ahearn was 6-for-11 in the Mars Hill series and hit a game-winning homer against Barton on Tuesday.
“Chris has started playing like we thought he would all along,” Thomas said. “He’s hitting and making plays. It’s a big plus.”
As alumni filled the bleachers, Ahearn helped add one more championship to the program’s rich history. Second-place Carson-Newman swept Lenoir-Rhyne Saturday, but it didn’t matter.
“This the way we wanted to do it ó by winning,” Gantt said. “We didn’t want to be standing around hoping someone else would lose.”
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Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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