North Rowan baseball preview
By Mike London
SPENCER — This is a special baseball season in which Rowan County’s top pitcher will be honored with the first annual Patrick Snider Memorial Award.
Snider, a Cavalier hurler who finally succumbed to cancer after an inspirational fight last summer, will again be in the thoughts of the young men who were his teammates.
His jersey still hangs in the locker room, his No. 7 is emblazoned on each of their caps, and every Cavalier carries one of those familiar fight-cancer wristbands in the back pocket of his trousers.
Snider will be a source of inspiration for a team talented enough to compete for the 1A Yadkin Valley Conference championship under the leadership of young Aaron Rimer, an assistant last season to Rob Linder.
Rimer, a tremendous hitter at North and Catawba, brings some fire and enthusiasm as a rookie head coach, and it will be a surprise if the Cavaliers don’t enjoy their first winning season since 2007.
North has seven returning starters, brings back its whole pitching staff and has added two impact transfers.
“We’ve got a lot of depth, we’ve got a lot of experience and we’ve got a lot of seniors,” Rimer said. “That gives us a chance to be pretty good.”
North was just 10-15 in 2010 and tied for sixth in the nine-team 1A Yadkin Valley Conference with a 7-9 record.
The Cavs managed to sneak into the state playoffs via a wild-card berth, but expectations were higher after North stated out 3-0 in the league. Painful YVC losses to South Davidson, East Montgomery and South Stanly were all by one run.
“Honestly, I think we could’ve won the league last year,” Rimer said. “Fielding was our downfall. We’d make that key error when we really didn’t need it.”
Rimer has spent his practice time on defense, drills designed to make sure North can get the job done with its gloves this time.
“That’s what we’ve focused on — definitely,” Rimer said.
There aren’t many concerns about the Cavaliers’ arms and bats.
Start with the arms.
Lefty Josh Price (5-1, 2.95 ERA) threw several gems last season and was considered for the all-county team. As a senior, he’s a captain and is expected to be the mound ace.
“He’s smart and he’s not scared of anything,” Rimer said. “There are guys that have more stuff, but he has command. He’s our leader. He’s our bulldog.”
Dusty Agner, who tossed a five-inning no-hitter against Gray Stone last season for his only win, entered the season as the No. 2 starter.
Tyler Blume, a senior who is also a new face, is pencilled in as the No. 3 starter.
“Blume came out of nowhere,” Rimer said. “He’s our wild card. He just decided he wasn’t going to sit around and play X-box this year.”
Dakota Brown (two saves) and Matt Laurens (two wins) pitched effectively at times last season, but Rimer hopes to be able to keep Laurens in right field and Brown at shortstop most of the time.
Mason Jennings, the starting center fielder, and Jake Smith also have mound experience.
“Brown’s probably got the best stuff, but those are all capable guys,” Rimer said.
Catching them will be Wes Barker, who may have been the county’s most improved player last season.
He hit .214 as a sophomore, but he jumped to .461 as a junior. He scored 36 runs and showed some speed with nine doubles and 12 steals. He’ll be one of North’s captains and is a college prospect.
“I wouldn’t trade Wes for any position player in the county,” Rimer said. “He never worries about his numbers — he just does everything right from a team standpoint. He could play about anywhere on the field, but we want to keep him at catcher.”
Barker played some shortstop late last season when Brown spent time at third base trying to shore up the defense.
Brown, also a captain, will be starting for the fourth year and has 70 hits in his career. His batting average has traveled in the wrong direction since his debut— .369, .355, .286 — but he hit a lot of balls hard that didn’t find holes last season. He’s likely to climb back to .350 this year, and he’s a capable defensive shortstop.
Hunter Feezor returns at first base. His batting average (.236) wasn’t exciting, but his 15 RBIs were helpful.
“He’s got a lot of pop in his bat,” Rimer said. “When he gets the barrel on it, he really hits it hard.”
The transfers will start at second and third base. Both are juniors.
Alex Morgan, who came over from East Rowan, has been North’s best hitter in the early going.
“He’s good, he’s strong, and he’s a stud,” Rimer said. “His strength is his bat, but he has a good arm and should be very adequate at third base.”
Morgan also is the backup catcher. If Brown enters a game to pitch, Barker probably will move to shortstop, and Morgan will go behind the plate.
Tyler Wyatt came to North from Asheboro and has impressed. Rimer is giving the lefty swinger a chance to bat cleanup.
“He makes a lot of solid contact,” Rimer said.
The outfield appears in good shape with returning regulars — Matt Mauldin in left, Jennings in center, and Laurens in right field.
Mauldin and Laurens are seniors. Jennings is a junior.
Mauldin was all-county last season, batting .478 with 30 runs and a team-high 25 RBIs.
Laurens hit .260 with 13 RBIs, while Jennings, a lefty swinger, batted .293.
“Offensively, that’s a good group and they all can run,” Rimer said. “Defensively, they’ve improved. Those outfield drills get old, but they’ve gotten after it day after day and they’ve gotten better.”
Josh Mock doesn’t have a regular position, but Rimer sees him as a major contributor in a utility role. He can play infield or outfield.
Thomas Tucker, a sophomore, can swing the bat and is getting a chance to be the DH.
Colton Fries and Jamone Kelly return as backup outfielders. Kelly has a lot of speed. North won’t need a courtesy runner for Barker, but Kelly could run the bases when a pitcher gets on.
New faces who will begin the season in backup roles include Justin Ogg, Parker Smith and John Hartley.
The assistants will be experienced — Bill Kesler, a legend who coached Rimer in his playing days, and Jason Sparger, who has bled green for a long time.
The Cavaliers lost a one-run game early to South Stanly, but Rimer is confident the Cavaliers can stay in the race with favorites South Stanly, Albemarle and North Moore.
There’s a possibility North could add players from the talented basketball team. Rimer said Michael Connor and Pierre Givens have the arm strength to be factors on the diamond.