Legion baseball: Veal among veterans making most of chance

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 13, 2009

By Bret Strelow
Rowan County’s American Legion baseball team already has advanced farther than the star-studded squad from 2002.
That group included a third-round draft pick in Cal Hayes Jr., a future major leaguer in Bobby Parnell, four additional Division I prospects and seven other players who went on to compete in Division II.
On paper, the current team doesn’t even compare favorably to Rowan’s from a year ago.
“Last year we probably had as much or more talent than we have on this team,” coach Jim Gantt said following Rowan’s victory in the Southeast Regional final. “No disrespect to the guys from last year, it’s just that we played great as a team here. They wanted to win and didn’t want to quit playing.”
Rowan (37-8) has reached the American Legion World Series for the third time, joining the 1955 and 1996 teams on an elite list. Play begins Friday in Fargo, N.D.
Rowan went an incredible 43-2 in 2002 but fell 3-2 against Dothan (Ala.) on the next-to-last day of the regional. The event didn’t feature a double-elimination format then, and once-beaten Dothan advanced to the final by handing Rowan its first postseason loss. Dothan then defeated tournament host Shelby for the championship.
Rowan had hopes of returning to regional play after opening the 2008 state tournament with a 2-0 record. The team dropped its next two games and finished with a 34-16 mark.
Trey Holmes, Billy Veal, Noah Holmes, Russell Michalec, Zach Smith, Philip Miclat, Austin Shull and Matt Miller ó all regular contributors this summer ó played in a season-ending loss to Cherryville last August.
Veal started on the mound that afternoon and allowed six runs (four earned) in 31/3 innings. His success this postseason has been one of Rowan’s leading storylines.
“Billy, I can’t say enough good things about him on the mound,” said Shull, a catcher. “He’s incredible. In clutch situations, he’s the man to go to.”
Veal pitched into the ninth inning of a state tournament victory against Cherryville and closed out a title-clinching win against Shelby.
He threw well in a start against Tuscaloosa (Ala.) on Day 2 of the regional, but a late rally against the bullpen left Rowan with an 8-7 loss. The two teams met again Monday night with a World Series berth at stake, and Veal earned the win by pitching 51/3 innings of scoreless relief.
Another 3-2 game against the Alabama state champion, but this time Rowan came out on top.
“In the bullpen I didn’t think anything was going to stop me, but they’ve got a good hitting ballclub,” Veal said. “I was just trying to throw strikes and let the defense work behind me.”
And sometimes in front.
A sixth-inning double play involving Miclat, Trey Holmes and Preston Troutman helped Rowan escape a bases-loaded, no-out jam with no damage in a 2-2 game.
With a Tuscaloosa runner on second and two away in the seventh inning, outfielder Jon Crucitti made a diving catch in the left-center gap.
“Jon, that was every bit of everything he had right there,” Gantt said.
Rowan broke the tie on an eighth-inning balk and survived a pressure-packed ninth. Veal delivered a 3-2 pitch to Terrance Dedrick with two out, and Dedrick hit an unusually low pop-up in front of the plate.
Veal converged with Shull, who shed his mask and made a diving catch.
“We kept our minds in the game and on the prize, and we pulled through,” Holmes said.
Rowan’s next test comes Friday night against Festus, which won the Missouri state title and Central Plains Regional championship. Right fielder Owen Conway had three homers and 13 RBIs in six regional contests.
Like Rowan, Festus (39-4) had to go 2-0 on the final day. Matt Stites, who struck out 11 and pitched a complete game in a tournament-opening victory, picked up the first win against previously unbeaten Pittsburg (Kan.) on Monday. Ryan Yuengel, Aaron Mayer and Travis Hayes combined on a four-hit shutout in the final game.