Prep baseball playoffs: East Rowan vs. Lake Norman

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 26, 2009

By Mike London
The talent level is high. The coaches communicate often. The respect is mutual.
NPC rivals East Rowan and Lake Norman go at it one more time tonight at Lake Norman in the fourth round of the 3A baseball playoffs. It will be the sixth meeting in the last two seasons. East has won four out of five, including a third-round matchup in 2008.
“I didn’t know if we’d make it or not, but I never had a doubt East would be here,” Lake Norman coach Robert Little said. “It’s good in a way that it’s NPC vs. NPC, but it’s a shame in a way because we’ve got to knock each other out ó same as we did last year.”
East coach Brian Hightower, who watched his team stage a miraculous rally to outlast Mooresville in the fourth round of the 2008 playoffs, figured the trail might turn in this direction.
“I’m not surprised at all to be playing Lake Norman again,” said Hightower, who led his team to a 3A runner-up finish last year. “They’re pretty daggone good.”
East hits a little better, fields a little better and runs a little better, but Lake Norman’s lefty pitching makes the matchup a tossup.
Slick left-hander Nick Lomascolo and closer Ross Whitley will join Catawba’s program this fall. Junior southpaw Scottie Williams, the No. 2 starter, will likely sign somewhere next year.
Lake Norman (23-2) won the NPC for the first time in school history, nearly running the table in a 10-team league. The Wildcats swept Mooresville, West Rowan and Carson. They’ve beaten Porter Ridge, Asheboro and SPC champion Marvin Ridge in the playoffs.
“So special,” Little said. “Our seniors made the playoffs as sophomores. They made the third round as juniors. Now we’re in the fourth round. That means we’re getting better.”
When Impact Baseball published a poll prior to the playoffs, Lake Norman was ranked third in 3A, with East fourth. The top two teams in that poll ó Ragsdale and defending champ Rocky Mount ó have already been ousted. That stuff happens when it’s one-and-done.
The other teams still in the hunt for the championship are North Buncombe (18-9) and Tuscola (18-6) in the West bracket and Eastern Wayne (22-4), West Brunswick (20-5), Oxford Webb (20-8) and Northern Nash (17-7) in the East bracket.
East Rowan (23-4) won 15 of its 18 NPC outings this season to finish in second place. Lake Norman whipped the Mustangs 6-2 at Staton Field to take command of the league race, but East answered with a convincing 6-0 victory at Lake Norman behind Corbin Shive to spoil the Wildcats’ bid for a perfect conference season.
Lomascolo, who throws three pitches for strikes and often has impeccable control, has started both previous games against East this season.
He’s fanned 21 solid hitters in 11 innings.
“Lomascolo is a tough pitcher, and you have to make each at-bat a battle between you and him,” Hightower said. “You’ve got to make it personal.”
Several Mustangs have experienced success against Lake Norman pitching.
Leadoff man Ben DeCelle is 6-for-13 with six runs scored. Center fielder Zach Smith has eight RBIs in five games. Second baseman Ethan Fisher is 6-for-15.
The biggest additions to East’s lineup this season have been right fielder David Ijames and shortstop/pitcher Preston Troutman. Ijames is 4-for-7 with four RBIs in his two starts against Lake Norman, while Troutman is 3-for-3 with three RBIs.
Troutman, East’s No. 2 hitter, ignited the lineup once he became a fixture. He has an unreal on-base percentage of .544.
“We lost a few trying to mix and match and figure things out, and that’s my bad,” Hightower said. “Eventually, we found our way, and we do have talent. Beyond talent, I think our guys play tough and hard and smart, and they work. That’s why they’ve made it this far.”
Ditto Lake Norman.
Both teams have pulled out dramatic playoff games.
Little said Lake Norman’s 3-2 win against Asheboro in the second round was as tense a game as his team’s had all year. East was on the ropes in the first round against Piedmont and was one strike from losing before it rallied.
East has won seven in a row since it lost at Mooresville. That setback remains the Mustangs’ lone road loss.
“We’ve played well on the road, and there’s no reason not to,” Hightower said. “Bases are still 90 feet apart.”
Hightower will send Troutman, a junior right-hander, to the mound tonight.
When the Mustangs lost to Lake Norman at Staton Field, Troutman relieved and was outstanding. He allowed two hits and no runs in 41/3 innings. He throws hard. If he throws strikes and gets ahead, he’s a very tough customer. His ERA is 1.50.
Lake Norman knows Troutman and doesn’t expect to light him up. The gameplan will be to scratch out a few runs and rely on Lomascolo ó and probably Whitley ó to make them hold up.
“Win, lose or draw, we’re in the position we want to be in,” Little said. “We’re not trying to win this game with our No. 3 or our No. 4. We’ve got our best guy going.”
“Lomo” will be on the mound, but the challenge for the Wildcats tonight is still huge. Playing East in a game this big is a daunting task. Hightower’s teams are 72-17 the past three seasons.
“I have a lot of respect for East because Brian and his kids respect the game,” Little said. “They’ll get off that bus, and Brian will lead them down that hill together as a group. They do things right. We do some of the same things East does.”
Lake Norman has looked a lot like East this season, running the bases aggressively, giving up runs grudgingly, coming back in games that looked lost.
Now it’s NPC vs. NPC.
It really is a shame, but only one can move on.
The best-of-three Western final series begins Thursday, with the East-Lake Norman winner playing host to the North Buncombe-Tuscola winner in Game 1. The NPC team will travel for Friday’s Game 2. If a third game is necessary, the NPC team would be at home.