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Prep Baseball: West Rowan preview

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.comMOUNT ULLA ó West Rowan was jokingly referred to as the “Yankees” over the winter.
Already expected to be a strong contender in the NPC, the Falcons were elevated to state-contender status by three offseason additions.
Outfielder Jon Crucitti (Mooresville) and pitcher Randy Shepherd (Carson) became Falcons at the start of the school year. Crucitti already has been a difference-maker on a state-championship football team and a valuable contributor to a 25-4 basketball team.
Infielder Hayden Untz (Northwest Cabarrus) arrived at West in February.
The talented newcomers join a stout returning cast. Coach David Wright will field one of those rare high school teams without an easy out in the batting order. Whoever bats ninth for West would bat fourth or fifth for most teams.
The Falcons should look more like a decent American Legion team than a high school team. Actually, they could look a lot like East Rowan did last year when it was 29-5 and 3A runner-up.
“Expectations are high,” Wright said. “They’re high because we finished with a pretty strong stretch last season and return lots of quality kids. On paper, with the guys we had coming back, I would have taken on anybody, anywhere, anytime. And now we do have some additions that give us a lot more depth.”
If you’re a West fan 2009 is going to be fun. If not ó you can start fussing now about those darned Yankees.
West has come a long way from where it was last March.
Remember those Falcons? They couldn’t hit. West was shut out by Northwest Cabarrus and Carson (yep, it was Shepherd). Then it lost 3-2 to Statesville and 9-1 to East.
West was 3-6 overall and just 1-5 in the NPC as Easter approached. West fans weren’t talking playoffs. They were talking about avoiding embarrassment.
But the team got better, as Wright-coached teams tend to do. West charged back to 9-9 in the NPC and made the playoffs, Then it beat Marvin Ridge, a No. 1 seed, on the road in the first round.
West finished 15-11, losing a wild, controversial, extra-inning game at Mooresville in the second round. Crucitti got the hit that beat the Falcons.
The guys who provided that inspired finishing kick ó second baseman Tyler King, shortstop Philip Miclat, first baseman Brett Huffman, right fielder Carlos Bautista, third baseman Brantley Horton, catcher Hernan Bautista, left fielder Dylan Andrews and lefty pitcher Zack Simpson are all back in light blue.
The only graduates off the 2008 squad that got playing time were Jake Koontz, who went 3-6 as a snakebit No. 2 pitcher, and DH Matt Sheets, who batted ninth.
So the Falcons return their seven best hitters and their ace pitcher.
“Without taking anything away from the seniors we had, we worked all last year to get to this year, and you could see it coming together at the end,” Wright said. “The difference is last year we weren’t in a rush. This year we can’t wait around until April or May to start playing.”
As far as pitching, Wright holds a pair of aces. He has two No. 1s in Simpson, a big, finesse lefty, and Shepherd, a power right-hander signed by Appalachian State. They provide contrasting styles.
Simpson was super as a sophomore ó 8-2 with a 3.13 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 54 innings. His body is still developing. Wright sees added life on his fastball.
“A thing to look for with Zack is that last year when he fell out of his mechanics, he couldn’t get back in,” Wright said. “We believe that’s a bridge he’ll cross this year.”
Shepherd passes the eye test ó tall, strong and confident. In Hollywood, he’d be cast either as a sheriff in a Western ó or as a pitcher.
With his lean, loose frame, he has a chance to throw baseballs beyond college.
He was 6-5 with a 1.73 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 722/3 innings for a Carson club that won 10 games.
“We’ve asked a lot of Randy, and he’s answered the challenge with a great work ethic in the offseason,” Wright said.
Pencil in Horton (2-2) as the No. 3 starter. Wright said Horton has historically been better with time to mentally prepare for a start than when called on out of the bullpen.
D.J. Webb (2-1, two saves) will be a key hurler. He can relieve or start equally well.
“D.J. is very dependable,” Wright said. “He’s added strength and velocity and he can throw three pitches for strikes.”
Garrett White, a location guy, and the sturdy Huffman can give Wright innings, but he expects Shepherd and Simpson to provide at least five quality frames every time they march to the mound.
Offensively, there aren’t many questions, except where Untz fits. He swings the wicked, left-handed bat West really needs, but his natural position is second base. Tyler King (.338), who had a fantastic sophomore year, is the returning starter there.
“Tyler carried us late last year,” Wright said. “His last 30 at-bats in NPC games, he had 17 hits.”
Huffman (.288) provides a big target at first base and lots of line drives. Simpson can also play first and is a surprisingly nimble glove man.
Miclat, who has signed with Boston College, is a slick shortstop, runs the bases and hit .348 as a junior. In Legion ball last summer, he even started hitting homers.
“You feel pretty comfortable with an ACC kid in the infield,” Wright said. “Miclat’s been a fixture for us.”
Horton (.259) is expected to play third base. He fields smoothly, runs like a greyhound and is capable of hitting .300 even if it’s out of the No. 9 spot. It’s also possible King or Untz could play third, with Horton shifting to the outfield.
Andrews (.267, 15 RBIs) usually plays left field in front of West’s “Blue Monster.”
Crucitti, a junior, brings speed, pop and intensity to center field. He’ll hit third in the lineup. Wright compares him to East Rowan grad Micah Jarrett, who signed with Wake Forest.
Carlos Bautista (.325, 17 RBIS) was 4-for-6 in the playoffs last season and is set to handle right field.
Carlos’ cousin, Hernan Bautista, is an excellent receiver and batted .333.
A third Bautista, Jonie, joins the mix and backs up Hernan behind the plate.
Shepherd, who batted .344 with eight doubles, probably won’t play in the field but could DH.
Wright also wants to find at-bats for Thomas Hester, a dependable outfielder who has gotten taller and stronger.
White and Dustin Davis return in reserve roles.
On paper, it’s a stacked team that should win at least 20 games.
Still, Wright is tackling a jacked-up non-league schedule in addition to four NPC headknockers with defending champ East and Mooresville, which won the NPC in 2007.
The Falcons will certainly lose a few, but not many.

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