East plays Lake Norman
By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY ó East Rowan baseball coach Brian Hightower will hand the baseball to ace Corbin Shive tonight when the Mustangs take on NPC rival Lake Norman in the third round of the state playoffs.
This is not uncharted territory for East baseball, but it has been a while. For all the school’s great tradition, great players and great coaches, the Mustangs haven’t survived the first two rounds of the playoffs since 1998 when Adam Horton, Eddie Guessford, Nick Heard, Chad Walker and Michael Lowman were bruising baseballs.
East (24-2) has a special team this season, one with a chance to go the distance, and it’s not just the 20 wins in a row, the perfect home record, the top-to-bottom hitting or the five-deep pitching staff.
More than anything else, it’s the speed. East gets to balls most teams don’t get to defensively, and six Mustangs have good enough wheels that the routine groundballs they hit aren’t really routine. Infielders hurry throws and make costly bobbles because Ben DeCelle, Micah Jarrett, Justin Roland and the rest are flying down the line.
A.L. Brown’s Empsy Thompson, who has been around a few years, said East has as much speed as any high school team he’s ever seen.
Having said all that, this isn’t a seven-game series, which East would certainly win. This is one-and-done, so East isn’t a sure thing to be playing next week. On a baseball field, as NPC clubs Mooresville and West Rowan proved a couple of nights ago, almost anything can happen.
Forget Lake Norman’s 13-13 record, its tie for sixth in the NPC regular-season race and its 9-4 and 8-2 losses to East during the regular season. This is a new season.
The thing you have to respect about coach Robert Little’s Lake Norman team is it essentially has been playing playoff games a week longer than everyone else.
Lake Norman was 6-10 in the NPC after it looked shaky defensively and left Mount Ulla on the short end of a 9-2 beating from West Rowan not long ago.
The Wildcats were finished if they lost either of their last two regular-season games, but they got past North Iredell. Then they roughed up Northwest Cabarrus to force a three-way tie for sixth. The Wildcats won a tiebreaker with North Iredell and Carson to get into the playoffs.
Lake Norman’s shelf life in the playoffs was expected to be about 90 minutesó probably you could have gotten 50 to 1 odds on the Wildcats beating top-ranked Southeast Guilford in the first round ó but Lake Norman shocked the world, proving one more time why baseball is the greatest game in the world.
The equalizer that night was lefty Nick Lomascolo, who will likely pitch against East tonight. He fanned 13 SEG hitters and Lake Norman held on to win 6-5.
Then Lake Norman rallied past Southwest Guilford, a respected No. 2 seed in the second round, by a 5-3 count.
“Sure, it’s amazing to be playing another NPC team in the third round, but Lake Norman is playing real good baseball right now,” East coach Brian Hightower said. “They’ve beaten two great teams to get here, and we’ll be up against their No. 1 guy.”
Lomascolo fanned the first seven East batters he faced in the team’s first meeting this season. That made an impression on Hightower.
East’s hottest stick lately has been right fielder Zach Smith, who may move into the cleanup spot tonight in an attempt to pump more juice into the offense.
“Zach’s not just hitting the ball hard, he’s hitting it hard with guys on base,” Hightower said.
Jarrett has killed Lake Norman ó three of his six homers have been against the Wildcats ó so Smith could be at the plate in key situations if Jarrett gets pitched around.
Hightower’s heard rumblings East should “save” Shive (9-0, 1.20 ERA) for Round 4. He’s not listening. He’s worried about surviving Round 3.
Shive pitched only one inning against Lake Norman this season. Cody Laws and Trey Holmes started the regular-season games.
“We’ll go with Shive tonight and if I didn’t go with Shive I would be the dumbest coach in the world,” Hightower said. “We might have to hold Lake Norman to nothing if we’re gonna win.”
Lake Norman has very good players in Lomascolo (16 strikeouts in a shutout at Carson), big first baseman Garrett Braun, catcher Eric Manser, lefty-hitting center fielder Shane Denton, leadoff man/shortstop Kevin Gradert and left fielder Jordan Farrell, who’s been hot in the playoffs.
The Wildcats have all sorts of interesting family ties. Braun’s brother is Ryan Braun, although not the Ryan Braun who hits homers for Milwaukee. His brother is the Ryan Braun who has pitched in the majors. He’s traveled back and forth between the Kansas City Royals and their Triple-A club in Omaha the past three years.
Manser’s brother, Joe, plays baseball at Catawba. The freshman hasn’t played much this year, but he could be in the battle for the open job at second base in 2009.
Right fielder Donnie Burt is the nephew of Jim Burt, the Miami Hurricane who rose from undrafted free-agent status to NFL Pro Bowler and played nose tackle in Super Bowls for the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. Among other things, Burt is credited with inventing the Gatorade shower for winning coaches.
Little will probably get two Gatorade showers if Lake Norman springs an upset tonight.
Hightower won’t be looking for a bath. The Mustangs still have eyes for the biggest prize of all.
NOTES: Lake Norman opened in the fall of 2002. It’s one of the biggest 3A schools now and is headed for 4A for the 2009-10 school year. .. Lake Norman had not won a baseball playoff game until this season. … The Wildcats have beaten East twice in eight meetings. Lake Norman won the first matchup of the schools in 2003 by a 5-4 score and won at Staton Field 12-8 in 2005. Roland was the only current Mustang who played in that game. … Tonight’s winner plays the Mooresville-Glenn survivor. East would have to travel to Kernersville to play Glenn. East would play host to Mooresville. Glenn and Mooresville are both 20-5.
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.