3A Baseball Championships: Mustangs, Gryphons meet today
By Bret Strelow
GRANITE QUARRY ó The past-meets-present moment occurred earlier this week when East Rowan coach Brian Hightower fielded a call from Mike Morris.
The Mustangs (28-3) are attempting to win a state baseball title for the first time since 1995, and they will face Rocky Mount (25-5) today at 5 p.m. in Game 1 of the 3A championship series. The best-of-three matchup, being held at Five County Stadium in Zebulon, will continue Saturday morning.
Morris took the mound 13 years ago for East’s series-opening game in Burlington and blanked Asheboro for five innings. The Mustangs won 7-0, then clinched the title with a 4-0 victory later the same day.
Morris wished Hightower luck during their recent conversation, and Hightower relayed the remainder of Morris’ message to the 2008 collection of Mustangs.
“His advice was that the first one to get the jitters out usually wins,” Hightower said.
“Morris’ dad came by and said they were getting guys together to go to the game. That’s just part of the great tradition here. It’s special, and it’s why I really wanted to come here.”
Hightower left Statesville for East Rowan in 2004, the same year senior shortstop Justin Roland enrolled at East.
The Mustangs have compiled an 80-32 record during their time together, and this year’s team needs one more victory to match the county’s single-season record for wins. The 1995 squad went 29-1.
“It’s still tough to swallow, tough to believe we’re in the state championship, but it’s a great feeling because it’s real tough to get there,” Roland said. “Hopefully we won’t have any jitters, but if we do, hopefully we can get them out in the first inning. Play our game after that and we’ll be all right.”
Rocky Mount swept its state semifinal series with D.H. Conley, so coach Pat Smith was able to visit Belmont last Saturday for Game 3 of the East Rowan-South Point series. Roland struck out 11 batters, and the Mustangs won 3-2.
Roland, a Charlotte signee with a future as an infielder, is 5-0 with an ERA of 0.88 as a pitcher this season. He leads the team with 37 runs scored and 25 steals, and he has registered 99 hits, 91 runs and a school-record 72 steals in his four-year varsity career.
Hightower first saw Roland play in a fall-ball contest at Salisbury in 2004. Hightower had yet to coach a game at East, and the effort of an undersized, 14-year-old shortstop left quite an impression.
“He played two innings of short, pitched on the mound, came in after an at-bat and did soft toss in the nets right next to the dugout,” Hightower said. “I knew right then he was a varsity shortstop. He conducted himself, hustled on the field. He didn’t care if it was a fall game or not, he was out there to win. You could see it in him.”
The Mustangs just missed out on making the 3A playoffs during Roland’s freshman season, and they competed in 4A the next two years.
East ó playing in the CPC with strong teams such as North Davidson, West Forsyth and Davie County ó won 20 games each season and suffered a pair of second-round playoff losses.
The Mustangs dropped back down to 3A before the start of this school year and went 18-0 in the NPC.
“We figured if we were going to make a run for it, this was going to be the year to do it,” East senior Micah Jarrett said. “We came in with the mindset this fall to do whatever it takes to get us there. So far everybody’s been doing their part.”
Jarrett, a center fielder who has signed with Wake Forest, ranks first at East with six home runs, 36 RBIs, 39 hits and a .402 average. Fellow senior Trey Holmes is batting .398, and Zach Smith has 30 RBIs.
Junior right-hander Corbin Shive, today’s probable starter, is the club’s ace. He is 11-1 with an ERA of 1.25, and he has 76 strikeouts in 671/3 innings. He lost for the first time last Thursday, when South Point prevailed 1-0 thanks to an eight-inning no-hitter from counterpart Zach Horne. Cody Laws improved to 9-0 when East bounced back to claim a series-evening victory.
Rocky Mount also possesses plenty of capable pitchers, and senior right-hander Jim Leggett (7-3) likely will start today. He is scheduled to undergo surgery on June 20 for a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Center fielder Brian Goodwin and catcher Ben Fish lead the Gryphons’ offense. Goodman, a junior who has committed to North Carolina, has gone 8-for-13 with seven walks and nine runs scored in six playoff games. He’s batting .482 with 41 runs, 23 walks and 20 steals this season.
“They’re good up the middle, and you have to be a great team to get to the state championship,” Roland said.
Wilson Fike, which shared the New 6 Conference title with Rocky Mount, handed the Gryphons two losses. They began the season with a 5-4 win against 4A finalist Greenville Rose, then fell 12-2 against Ragsdale. Rocky Mount won a second meeting with Rose by a 17-8 score.
East Rowan rattled off 22 consecutive wins after losing for the second time to a 4A foe from the CPC. The Mustangs trailed 4-0 in a fourth-round matchup with Mooresville and scored five runs in the bottom half of the seventh inning to reach the state semifinals.
Of all the state finalists, only East dropped the first game of its regional championship series.
“I’m a realist, and I look back and say that was a heck of a comeback against Mooresville,” Hightower said. “We’ve realized it’s not always going to go smooth, and you need some of that come-from-behind magic sometimes to get where we’re at.”
Contact Bret Strelow at 704-797-4258 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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