Prep baseball: North Rowan 8, East Montgomery 3
By Mike London
SPENCER — It never hurts for a rookie head coach to have a gray-haired fellow who’s been there and done that to be standing next to him in the dugout.
“Thank goodness for Bill Kesler,” said North Rowan coach Aaron Rimer after the Cavaliers beat YVC rival East Montgomery 8-3 in the second round of the 1A playoffs.
Kesler was North’s head coach for 21 seasons (1985-2005) and piloted the green and gold to a county-record 295 wins. He was Rimer’s coach when the Cavaliers finished second in the state in 2A in 2000.
There was one huge moment in Wednesday’s game. East Montgomery had the bases loaded with one out in the fifth. The Eagles had their good hitters up, and North was clinging to a 4-2 lead behind pitcher Matt Laurens.
“Kesler moved (third baseman Wes) Barker a step closer to the line,” Rimer said. “He was thinking we didn’t want to give up a double.”
Barker was positioned perfectly for what came next. Levi Barnes stroked a rocket. Instead of a game-tying double into the left-field corner, his smash took one hop right into Barker’s leather.
“I knew it was a shot, and I was just thinking I had to try to block it up somehow,” Barker said. “Then I look in my glove, and there’s the ball.”
North’s defense hasn’t always kept pace with its powerful offense this season, but the defense picked a great time to shine. Barker made an accurate throw to the plate for a forceout, and catcher Alex Morgan made a perfect throw to first baseman Tyler “Chipper” Wyatt to complete a timely twin killing.
“I’m almost yelling for Alex to eat that ball there,” Rimer said. “Tough throw to make, but he made a great play.”
East Montgomery coach Sean Hassell agreed the DP was the pivotal moment.
“That was a momentum-breaker,” he said. “Extremely big. That ball gets down the line and it’s a whole different ballgame. After that play, North was thinking, ‘OK, now let’s go finish this thing up.’ ”
North (22-7) accumulated 11 hits, and Laurens (6-1) made only one obvious mistake — a high changeup that Matt Reynolds, East Montgomery’s only senior and a .520 hitter, whacked for his sixth homer on his final high school at-bat.
Still, this was no cakewalk, and Rimer didn’t expect it to be.
“I was very concerned about this pairing because they’ve got a pitcher (Hunter Stephens) who can throw different breaking pitches for strikes on any count,” Rimer said. “We had a 1-0 game with them with him pitching. It’s good and it’s bad when you’re playing a conference team for the third time. You’ve got a book on them, but they’ve also got a pretty good book on you.”
North went up 1-0 in the second when Hunter Feezor scored on a wild pitch.
East Montgomery (12-13), which hadn’t scored in the two regular season games with North, suddenly got two runs on one freak play in the fourth to grab a lead. With runners at second and third, Laurens uncorked a wild pitch. He dashed in to cover the plate, as Morgan chased the ball to the screen.
Morgan’s toss to Laurens struck the runner sliding home and caromed wildly, allowing a second run to score.
North didn’t trail long, as the bottom of the lineup came through in the home fourth. No. 8 hitter Jake Smith batted with two out and nobody on but wasn’t ready to concede the inning.
“I went up there looking for a fastball and got one,” Smith said. “I put a good swing on it and got it up the middle.
A sharp single by No. 9 hitter Mason Jennings followed, and the Cavaliers were back to the top of the order. Dakota Brown and Wyatt delivered solid RBI singles. Then Wyatt drew a balk as he broke early from first base, and Laurens was staked to a 4-2 lead.
“We had that top of the fourth where we lost our focus a little bit defensively,” Rimer said. “But we came in and responded very well.”
When North turned in that scintillating 5-2-3 double play in the fifth, everyone in both dugouts could sense momentum was shifting for good.
“I thought we were kind of flat up to that point,” Morgan said. “That pumped us up.”
Batting with one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth, Smith slapped a groundball to shortstop, but he was able to beat the double-play relay to first as Matt Mauldin scored to make it 5-2.
“Just had to hustle and try to beat it out,” Smith said.
Reynolds’ homer in the sixth pulled the visitors a run closer, but the Cavaliers iced it with three in the bottom half.
Wyatt reached on a one-out chopper, and Barker followed with a well-struck liner that sliced past the right fielder for a run-scoring triple. With two out, Morgan pulled a two-run homer down the left-field line.
Scorching hot in March, Morgan has cooled off some since then, so his homer was a welcome sight to North fans.
“It felt good,” Morgan said. “Their pitchers did a good job of keeping us off-balance (Stephens’ arsenal included a knuckle-curve), but on that pitch, I got an inside fastball, kept my hands in and drove it.”
Josh Price pitched a 1-2-3 seventh for the Cavs, and it was time to think about Round 3. North will be at home against East Surry (19-9).