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Legion baseball: Rowan on hot streak entering state tournament

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
The Rowan County American Legion team owns momentum, an undefeated starting rotation and a pair of red-hot Holmes brothers as the state tournament begins today in Greenville.
Rowan (27-6) opens against unheralded Duplin-Sampson (12-11) from the Clinton area. Rowan meets the Area II runner-up at 12:30 p.m.
Rowan charges into the double-elimination event at East Carolina’s Clark-LeClair Stadium with the distinction of being the Area III champion. That may be more significant than it sounds.
Rowan last won a state championship in 2002, when it enjoyed the favorable double of being the Area III champ as well as the host team.
In 2000, another year in which Rowan traveled to the state tournament wearing the crown of Area III champion, it won four games before being ousted by Caldwell County.On three occasions ó 2001, 2007 and 2008 ó Rowan arrived at the double-elimination state event drained and frayed after losing a seven-game Area III title series to Randolph County.
At Garner in 2001, Rowan posted a 1-2 record. Returning to Garner in 2007, Rowan again went 1-2. In 2008, playing in Gastonia, Rowan won its first two games in the tournament but lost its next two. Rowan is back in another town that starts with a G in 2009, but at least it’s not Garner.
Rowan added to its fine tradition with a recent two-game sweep of Mooresville even though it was the briefest Area III title series since the 1950s.
In the past 19 seasons, Rowan has been one of the top two clubs in Area III no fewer than 15 times. Rowan was the top team in the Southern Division of Area III a dozen seasons in a row from 1991-2002 before Kannapolis finally ended that streak in 2003.
Rowan (six state championships) is joined in Greenville by traditional powers Wilmington (eight state titles), Shelby (six) and Cherryville (six).
Cherryville (27-9) is the modern bully, with four state crowns since 1997 and two second-place finishes nationally. It was runner-up to Randolph for state honors in 2008 and is considered the favorite in Greenville.
Cherryville is 3-1 against Rowan since North Carolina adopted the double-elimination, single-site format in 2000.
Prior to 2000, teams squared off in a sequence of best-of-seven series until only one team was left standing. Rowan split two meetings with Cherryville in 2000 and lost in both 2007 and 2008.
Area IV runner-up Shelby (27-6) and Area II champion Wilmington (24-4) are also highly regarded.
There are also upstarts in this year’s field.
Mooresville (18-12) reached the Area III championship series for the first time since 1990 (when it beat Kernersville) and is making its first appearance in the state tourney under its present format.
The Moors have shown they are good when either Nick Lomascolo or Wes Dumford is on the mound. They also have power. Designated hitter Billy Nantz has 10 homers. Catcher Aaron Meadows (seven homers) should be recovered from a foot injury.Mooresville’s first-round opponent today at 4:30 p.m. is also a new face. Nash County (Rocky Mount) won Area I, taking it first area title since 1986. Nash County boasts five .400 hitters. Ben Fish, who faced East Rowan High School in last year’s 3A championship series, and Xavier Macklin have hammered 10 homers apiece.
Rowan takes one of the best offensive teams in its storied history into the event. Rowan is batting .368, a mark that would break the program record if it’s maintained. Rowan’s 53 homers in 33 games already are a record.
First baseman Trey Holmes has proven himself as one of the standouts in program history with a fantastic season that has included 11 homers, 19 doubles, 51 RBIs and a .465 batting average. He moved to the leadoff spot in Rowan’s 15th game, which makes his RBI total remarkable. He’s also contributed world-class defense.
The Rowan record for batting average is the .475 mark put up by Craig Powers in 1997. Cal Hayes Jr. batted .470 in 2001. In 1956, when Rowan was still “Salisbury,” Jerry Hillard batted .466.
For his career, Holmes ranks in Rowan’s top five in runs (171) and RBIs (146). He’s tied for second with 47 doubles and tied for fourth with 20 homers.
Trey’s younger brother, Noah, the third baseman and a rising senior at East Rowan, has been almost as hot. He was 8-for-9 with two homers in the Area III championship series to hike his batting average to .411.
Rowan coach Jim Gantt has four options for three outfield spots with Zach Smith (.442, nine homers), Russell Michalec (.438, six homers), Jon Crucitti (.360) and Billy Veal (.418). Veal, a lefty hitter, and Crucitti, who is right-handed, may platoon.
Corbin Shive (10 homers, .369) has provided exceptional power as the DH.
How often the bottom of the lineup ó shortstop Preston Troutman (.284), second baseman Philip Miclat (.298) and defensive-minded catcher Austin Shull ó can get on base will have a lot to do with how far Rowan can go.
Gantt also has Matt Miller (.358) available behind the plate. He has driven in 17 runs in 53 at-bats.
Pitching always tells the tale, and Rowan’s hurlers haven’t been as stellar as the offense. Still, starters Shive (6-0), Veal (4-0), Forrest Buchanan (7-0, 2.51 ERA) and Nick Smith (5-0) have been effective and are usually showered with run support.
Gantt indicated he’d likely stick with Shive, his ace, today even though it’s difficult to gauge how dangerous Duplin-Sampson is. Gantt’s belief is that anyone who gets this far is a serious threat, so figure Shive (9-0 in his Legion career) as probable. Veal and Buchanan are alternatives.
Cherryville isn’t expected to struggle much with host Pitt County tonight. There’s a potential Rowan-Cherryville matchup on Sunday that could go far toward determining the state champion.
nNOTES: Win or lose today, Rowan will play at 7 p.m. on the second day of the tournament. Scheduling challenges come with competing on a Sunday, and a pair of losers bracket games (at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.) will be held at nearby Rose High School. Winners bracket games (at the same times) will be held at ECU. … Randolph County is the host team for the 2010 state tournament, so the rest of the Area III teams will be fighting for a single berth. … Rowan is 12-8 in state tournament games under the current format. … The regional will be played at Sumter, S.C., from Aug. 6-10. … The Little World Series will be in Fargo, N.D., from Aug. 14-18. Fargo’s most famous baseball contribution was the late Roger Maris, who slugged 61 homers in 1961.

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