Legion baseball: Rowan captures state title with 5-3 win over Shelby
By Bret Strelow
GREENVILLE ó Billy Veal bounded off the mound, turned toward fast-approaching teammate Trey Holmes and flexed his biceps muscles.
Rowan County, known for its strong American Legion baseball tradition, is again a state champion.
Rowan captured its seventh title ó and the program’s first since 2002 ó with a 5-3 victory against Shelby in the second game of the championship round Wednesday at East Carolina’s Clark-LeClair Stadium.
Shelby forced a winner-take-all Game 2 by pulling out a 7-3 decision against its previously unbeaten opponent earlier in the day, but Zach Smith’s RBI double and Jon Crucitti’s sacrifice fly produced a first-inning lead that Rowan never relinquished.
“The guys kind of hung their heads for a second and then said, ‘We can’t do it that way,’ ” coach Jim Gantt said. “They were walking around like they knew they were going to win it.”
Preston Troutman, starting on the mound for only the second time in his Legion career, pitched into the sixth inning before giving way to Veal.
He limited Shelby to one run over 32/3 tense innings and set off a wild celebration by hitting catcher Austin Shull’s mitt with a 1-2 breaking ball that crossed the outside corner of the plate for the final out.
“We’ve worked for this all year,” Veal said. “A lot of us worked for it for four years in high school and never got it. Finally we came out and won it, and it feels great. Everybody played a big part.
“It’s something I’ll never forget, and I’ll never forget anybody who was on this team.”
Rowan reserves sprinted from the top step of the home dugout to the mound, where a mass of players jumped around inside a circle of discarded gloves. Parker Gobbel dumped water on Gantt’s back, and team manager Bob Lowman fielded a congratulatory call from his son Michael while posing for a group photo near the third-base line.
The Newman Park outfield billboard chronicling Rowan’s championship years needs a makeover.
“We jumped on them early and kind of let off late, but once we got that early lead we had confidence and I guess we remained confident throughout the whole game,” said Holmes, the tournament MVP.
“We’ll come back years from now and see ‘2009’ up there on the Catawba wall, and it’s going to mean a lot.”
Rowan (32-7) advances to the Southeast Regional, which begins next Thursday at Riley Park in Sumter, S.C.
South Carolina’s state tournament began yesterday, and its champion is scheduled to meet the North Carolina champ in a regional opener at 10 a.m.
Sumter is roughly 30 miles closer to Salisbury than Greenville, where Rowan rolled to a 4-0 record in the first four days of the double-elimination event at ECU. Shelby’s four-run ninth inning Wednesday afternoon put Rowan’s championship hopes on hold, and Holmes spoke up in an attempt to inspire his teammates.
“During that first game we were really pumped,” left fielder Russell Michalec said. “When we finally lost, in between games, Trey came and pulled us together and told us that it’s our time now. Usually we lead together, but he took it upon himself this time, and we needed that.”
Troutman retired the side in order to get Rowan off on a good note in the first inning.
Michalec drew a one-out walk against Shelby starter Brett Mabry and raced home on the double by Smith, who advanced to third on an outfield error. He scored on Crucitti’s flyball to center.
“Any time you get off to a great start like they did, it’s got to help your momentum and get a little confidence built,” Shelby coach Mike Grayson said.
Rowan increased its lead when Philip Miclat came home on a double steal in the second and Noah Holmes hit an RBI double in the third.
Shelby (30-8) drew within 4-1 in the fourth on Adam McFarland’s RBI double, and Trey Holmes answered with a solo homer in the bottom half of the frame.
Troutman, who started the clinching game of the Area III championship series and lasted 41/3 innings, pitched a perfect fifth and went to the sixth without having issued a walk.
“I felt pretty confident,” Troutman said. “The nerves didn’t really sink in until that first inning when I went out there and realized I was pitching for the state championship. I was just trying to throw a lot of strikes and let the defense play.”
Troutman (1-2) allowed one hit and recorded three walks, including one with the bases loaded, in the sixth. Rowan couldn’t afford to give up its lead against sidearming righty Alex Izokovic, who tossed seven innings in Shelby’s win and wound up with four scoreless innings in the finale.
Veal, the pitching star in a victory over Cherryville on Sunday, entered from the bullpen with one away in the sixth and induced a 6-4-3 double play on a 3-1 offering. Shelby scored a run in the next inning, but Veal struck out McFarland to end the threat with runners at the corners. Veal pitched around a two-out walk in the eighth and a two-out error in the ninth to wrap up the save.
Disappointment gave way to delirium by day’s end.
“You have to erase everything you’ve done wrong from the past and just start over, focus on the present and what you’re about to do,” Shull said. “Forget about everything bad because you can’t let that reflect on what you have to accomplish.”