Prep Baseball: Memorable season continues for Mustangs
By Bret Strelow
East Rowan coach Brian Hightower spent portions of the postgame celebration evading the focus of camera lenses, but he let his guard down to pose for one memorable picture.
Ben DeCelle held the Western championship plaque as he stood to Hightower’s left, and Justin Roland sidled up to Hightower’s right shoulder. DeCelle and Roland dispersed as the water from an overturned Gatorade cooler splashed across Hightower’s back.
Hightower broke into a smile after being victimized by the setup because his team had just beaten South Point in the deciding game of a 3A state semifinal series. The Mustangs (28-3) will meet Rocky Mount (25-5) in the final round.
“We wrote goals down, and we’re trying to achieve them,” Hightower said. “That’s what I can say. We knew this was a good group.”
The 3A championship series is currently slated to start Friday at either Doak Field in Raleigh or Five County Stadium in Zebulon. Uncertainty regarding the availability of N.C. State’s home field has prevented the NCHSAA from releasing the schedule.
The NCAA baseball championships begin Friday, and N.C. State could play host to one of 16 regionals. North Carolina is one of the nation’s top-ranked teams, and it’s rare for two regionals to be held in such close proximity. The NCAA selection show will air today.
SCOUTING THE OPPONENT: Pitching depth is a strength for East Rowan and Rocky Mount, which swept its Eastern championship series against defending state champion D.H. Conley. The Gryphons have outscored their opponents by a 42-5 margin in six playoff games.
Senior right-hander Jim Leggett ó who, according to one report, has a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder ó is Rocky Mount’s ace. He didn’t start either game against Conley.
Rocky Mount tied Wilson Fike for the New 6 Conference title, and they squared off in the fourth round last week. Leggett (7-3) tossed only 61 pitches in a three-hit shutout.
Senior right-hander Chris Berry, often a reliever, made his first career start in the first round and threw a no-hitter. He picked up his third playoff win in Rocky Mount’s 11-1, series-opening victory against Conley. Benton Moss, a right-handed freshman, went the distance in a 3-2 victory Friday.
Rocky Mount is attempting to win its first 3A title. It claimed 4A championships in 1963, 1967, 1973 and 1980.
PITCH OUT: Junior right-hander Corbin Shive (11-1) is East’s ace, and Roland (5-0) pitched like one in the Mustangs’ 3-2 victory against South Point.
Roland, a closer last season who has recently emerged as East’s second starter, matched a career high by striking out 11 batters Saturday.
“We ran into a bunch of great teams along the way, and East Rowan was no different,” South Point coach Jason Lineberger said. “They’re a great team that comes from a great program.”
Roland allowed one earned run and walked two batters (one intentionally) in Game 3. A standout shortstop, he even fielded a soft one-hopper to the mound with his bare hand and threw to first for the out.
Roland fell behind 2-0 in the count against pinch-hitter Lincoln Willis to begin the bottom half of the seventh inning, and catcher Austin Shull made an abbreviated visit to the mound.
Roland, who used two hands to motion Shull back toward home plate, closed out the win even though a pair of infield errors contributed to one unearned run scoring.
“This is what I’ve been living my whole life for, to play in the state championship right here in high school,” Roland said.
Roland has given up six earned runs in 48 innings this season for an ERA of 0.88. He has 69 strikeouts and 12 walks.
Roland also recorded 11 strikeouts in a win against Northwest Cabarrus late in the regular season, and he has 27 strikeouts in three playoff starts.
COMEBACK CENTRAL: East Rowan was the only team to lose the opener of its regional championship series and prevail in the next two contests.
Six of the eight matchups resulted in two-game sweeps, and East Rutherford took the first and third games of the 2A Western championship series with Ledford.
East Rowan stranded a total of three runners in two road games and failed to register a hit in the first 112/3 innings at South Point.
Zach Horne pitched an eight-inning no-hitter Thursday, and the Mustangs trailed 1-0 after three innings Saturday.
“We started off kind of shocked,” East senior Micah Jarrett said. “Going out there and getting no-hit was tough for us, but we bounced back.
“They got that early run that kind of put us in a bind, and we had to start going. We came through.”
Contact Bret Strelow at 704-797-4258 or email@example.com.