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NPC Championship: East Rowan 1, W. Iredell 0

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
STATESVILLE ó Accepting the award for the NPC baseball tournament championship was East Rowan coach Brian Hightower.
Accepting the Oscar for best actor in a leading role was reliever Will Johnson, while center fielder Will Sapp and infielders Justin Morris and Ashton Fleming finished in a three-way tie in the voting for best supporting actor.
Top-seeded East used the whole playbook to beat second-seeded West Iredell 1-0 in Fridayís tournament final on West Iredellís field.
Victory required a fifth-inning triple play on a great individual effort by third baseman Avery Rogers, plus dramatic execution of the hidden-ball trick in the seventh.
ěIt was important for us to win this one,î said a drained Hightower, whose team was clocked at Staton Field 12-4 by West Iredell in an April 1 encounter that marked the low point in the Mustangsí season. ěYou always like to prove youíre the best in your league, and this win lets us go into the playoffs on an up note.î
East (18-7) scored the only run in the first when Nathan Fulbright was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
Bradley Robbins pitched six superb innings to raise his record to 9-0, but Hightower turned to his southpaw closer Johnson ó as always ó for the seventh.
ěBradley had only thrown 53 pitches through six, and thatís ridiculously low, but Sam Laws was leading off the seventh and heíd had good swings at Bradley all night,î Hightower explained. ěAnd Garrett Bell was up third. Heís a good lefty hitter.î
Laws crushed a pitch from Johnson to the fence and narrowly beat right fielder Wesley LeRoyís strong throw to second for a double. Then, with Jordan Gamble batting, Johnson whirled and fired an imaginary baseball toward the second-base bag, and Hightowerís club, on cue, turned into a traveling troupe of thespians.
Morris, the shortstop, went sailing through the air like Flipper in the Atlantic. Fleming, the second baseman, went sprawling. Sapp, out in center, darted madly after Johnsonís imaginary errant toss, and with the crowd screaming wildly and Mustangs sprinting in all directions to back up bases, Laws accepted the bait. He was halfway between second and third when the sly Johnson casually produced the baseball from his glove and flipped it to Rogers, who tagged Laws for the first out of the inning.
After Gamble mashed a grounder that Morris gobbled up and Sapp chased down a wicked liner to left-center off Bellís bat, the Mustangs had narrowly escaped.
ěThey hit some balls really good,î sighed Johnson, a relieved reliever. ěBut we practice the hidden-ball trick a lot. It was a good time to use it.î
Robbins allowed three straight singles in the first inning, but first baseman Andy Austin fired across the diamond to nail an overly aggressive runner to end the frame.
Robbins, who only fanned one, then put up three straight, rapid 1-2-3 innings.
ěIíll take groundballs over strikeouts any day,î Robbins said. ěBut then we got to the fifth. That was the tough one.î
Thatís when West Iredell (13-9) loaded the bases on singles by Bell and Lance Clanton and Robbinsí only walk.
With none out, WI coach Randy Martin sent up Brett Pope to pinch hit for his No. 9 man, and he was squeezing.
ěHeís a very good bunter, and the main thing weíre trying to do there is stay out of the double play because (leadoff man Travis) Fetter is up next,î Martin explained. ěBut then they get a triple play.î
Popeís bunt wasnít bad. Ordinarily, it would have fallen. But Rogers was thinking squeeze, even if with none out, and he darted in and made a diving catch. The ball settled in his glove a half-inch above the grass.
If you were behind Rogers, it was impossible to tell he caught it, and runners were moving. Fans drowned out the directions issued by coaches, and Rogers trotted to third and tagged the bag for the second out. Then he threw across to Austin for the third one, and Mustangs raced to the dugout.
ěIt was big momentum,î Rogers said. ěBut thatís a play Iím supposed to make.î
Rogers was being modest. It was a fantastic play.
East threatened all day against WI pitcher Sean Grant, but the Warriors twice turned double plays when the Mustangs had opportunities.
ěA few timely hits wouldíve been nice,î Hightower said. ěBut Grantís very good.î
Martin took the loss calmly, but it was a tough one. Mostly, his heart went out to Laws, one of the NPCís best.
ěBrianís teams always have plays, and youíve got to be careful,î he said. ěBut itís like I told Sam, if he doesnít hit that double, we have no chance. Weíre wounded now, and the only way to soothe it is by winning in the playoffs.î

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