Legion Baseball: Rowan opens tonight at home

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 31, 2011

By Mike London
SALISBURY — The high school baseball season ended earlier than East Rowan and North Rowan anticipated, but those prep setbacks could benefit the Rowan County American Legion team.
Most summers, Rowan digs an early hole in the regular season Southern Division of Area III race, just trying to tread water until it has its full roster.
That won’t be the case this time. Coach Jim Gantt has 23 players eager to finally get started. Nine will take the field at Newman Park tonight at 7 p.m. against the Mooresville Legends.
“Not only do we have everybody for our first game, which is unusual, we’ve actually had a chance to practice together before the season starts,” Gantt said. “Not that these guys haven’t been practicing all year, but it’s nice to have a few days just to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”
Rowan has 13 pitchers on the roster, including three collegians. The 10 prep hurlers had varying degrees of success, but all won at least one game.
“It’s not like we’ve got Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, but we’ve got a lot of adequate arms and our depth of pitching is a strength,” said Gantt, who enters his 11th year as head coach. “Depth is so important, with pitchers making that change from seven-inning high school games to nine-inning Legion games.”
The projected starting rotation includes Bradley Robbins (10-1 at East Rowan), UNC Pembroke’s Thomas Allen (4-0 for the Legion team in 2010), Brevard lefty Zack Simpson (3-4 for Rowan in 2010), Ethan Free (6-4 at Carson) and UNC Greensboro’s Caleb Henley.
It’s unusual for a Carson youngster to play for Rowan, but Free could be an important addition. He’s won 11 games the past two seasons for the Cougars.
Henley is the sleeper. A late-bloomer who never played varsity ball at East Rowan, he made the Division I UNC Greensboro team in walk-on tryouts. He redshirted this season.
“He’s still got to show he can do it in a game, but he looks great in a uniform,” Gantt said. “He’s a 6-foot-5 lefty and throws 88 to 91.”
Poised lefty Will Johnson returns to anchor the bullpen. Johnson was 6-1 for Rowan last summer and saved seven games for East as a senior.
Others in the pitching mix are North’s Matt Laurens, Dakota Brown, Dusty Agner and Mason Jennings and East’s Alex Bost, Avery Rogers and Jared Mathis.
The catchers are East veterans Luke Thomas and Nathan Fulbright. Thomas has power and knocked in 32 runs for Rowan last summer. Fulbright belted five homers this season in high school. North’s Alex Morgan, a potent bat in search of a position, is another possibility for catching duties.
Andy Austin hit .295 for the Legion team last summer and was over .400 at East this year. He’s a slick glove man with height and is a future D-I player. A lefty swinger, he has a lot of power to left-center and will be the regular first baseman.
East’s Justin Morris (.328, 44 runs for Rowan in 2010) figures to start at shortstop, with the slick-fielding Rogers (.342, 21 RBIs for East) handling third base.
The candidates at second base are the versatile Brown (.447 as North’s shortstop), Ashton Fleming (.350 at East) and West Rowan’s Taylor Garczynski.
East’s Will Sapp (.291, 37 runs for the 2010 Legion squad) figures to be in center field most nights.
North’s Matt Mauldin had a huge senior season, leading the county with a .522 batting average and 41 RBIs, and is a candidate to start in one of the outfield corners.
Laurens (four homers for North), Mathis, Jennings, Morgan and Salisbury’s Nolan Meyerhoeffer are the other outfield candidates. Austin could play out there some, with Thomas “resting” at first base and Fulbright catching.
“Our pitching should be pretty good and our defense should be solid,” Gantt said. “How good we are on offense remains to be seen, but we do have good team speed.”
Rowan was 30-13 in 2010, losing to eventual state-champ Kernersville in the Area III finals.
Most seasons Rowan would have qualified for the state tournament, but only one Area III team went to the event last summer because Randolph County had an automatic berth locked up as the host team.
As always, Rowan should be in the hunt to reach the state event, although the run production Zach Smith, Noah Holmes, Preston Troutman and Hayden Untz provided last summer will be missed.
Gantt currently has 23 on the roster. Rowan will have to cut down to 18 by June 23.
The playoffs will be a lot different this season, with a double-elimination tournament determining the Area III state representatives, rather than the long string of series, with alternating home games, to which fans are accustomed.
Gantt isn’t thrilled about it.
“Our regular season is legit, but the new playoff format is ridiculous,” he said. “Some teams won’t have even one home game. And since they’re splitting the gate on playoff games, someone’s going to pay $600 for a bus, take a ride somewhere and get $20 back.”