Prep Baseball: Carson's Free to Catawba

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 24, 2011

By Mike London
CHINA GROVE — Carson pitcher Ethan Free has stepped on a mound hundreds of times, but it was an unofficial game he threw a few months ago that shaped his future.
It was Carson against Mooresville in a fall high school league. The venue was Catawba’s Newman Park, and among the coaches in attendance was Catawba’s Jim Gantt.
Gantt had watched Free toil all summer for his Rowan County American Legion team, but he’d never seen him pitch quite like this.
And timing is everything.
“It had to be one of the best games I’ve ever pitched in my life,” Free said. “Everything was working.”
That outing took some weight off Free’s shoulders. Catawba’s interest in him surged after that, and Free now has committed to the Indians’ baseball program.
Former Carson star Julio Zubillaga is the starting second baseman for the Indians, and former Cougar Gunnar Hogan could be the Indians’ third baseman as a freshman. Carson coach Chris Cauble is thrilled that Free (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) will be joining them.
“When Ethan came here, he was not one of those kids that you automatically know is going to be a college player,” Cauble said. “But his father did a lot to prepare him, and Ethan did the things we told him to do. Not every kid follows the plan you give him, but this shows what can happen when a kid dedicates himself.”
Free was a first baseman as well as a pitcher as a freshman.
“But I hit into three double plays in one jayvee game,” he said with a laugh. “Coach (Ben) Hampton told me I wouldn’t be swinging anymore. I haven’t touched a bat much since then.”
As a sophomore, Free was a varsity sensation. He struck out 42 in 361/3 innings. Relying mostly on the cutter Cauble had taught him, his brilliant stat-line was 5-1 with two saves and a 1.93 ERA.
“I’d told my assistant coaches he had the potential to be one of our better pitchers,” Cauble said. “But what he did came out of nowhere.”
Free’s magical year included four sharp relief innings — with six whiffs— in the Easter Tournament championship game against Davie County.
There were also six shutout innings of relief in a loss to eventual state-champ East Rowan in the NPC tournament championship game.
When Carson’s 20-8 season ended against Charlotte Catholic in the state playoffs, Free was on the mound in relief. Three shutout innings with five Ks on a very big stage capped his year.
Free grew physically between his sophomore and junior seasons. He attended several camps in order to gain exposure to college coaches, but that was good news and bad news.
“There was a lot of talk about the velocity needed to pitch in college at those camps, and everyone was trying to light up that radar gun,” Cauble said.
Free admits he felt the need for more speed.
“When my junior year started, I was trying to throw the ball by people,” he said. “I tried to pick up speed, but I lost some accuracy.”
Baseball coaches refer to “accuracy” as location. Basically, the 85 mph pitch down the middle often gets hit hard, but the 80 mph pitch spotted down and away usually doesn’t.
Early last season when Free faced East, he walked three and allowed five hits in 12/3 innings. A relief outing against North Rowan was disastrous — five runs in the bottom of the seventh and a painful 6-5 loss.
Free was 1-3 at that point, but he managed to salvage his season and helped the Cougars go 16-9.
“After talking to Coach, I got to back to pitching the way I had as a sophomore,” said Free, who finished 6-4 and broke the school record with 11 career wins.
Free pitched for the Rowan Legion last summer, becoming the first Cougar to do so. He was 2-1.
“I talked to Coach Cauble some over the summer, and he told me he wanted a list of 20 schools where I might want to go, and he’d start e-mailing coaches,” Free said. “Catawba was right at the top of that list.”
Tusculum, one of Catawba’s big rivals in the South Atlantic Conference, was also high on Free’s wish-list, but the fall game that Free pitched at Newman Park decided things.
After that, Free, who is outstanding academically and well-qualified for a number of academic scholarships, was set for Catawba.
“They always have a good team, and that was important to me,” he explained. “It’s close. Zubi is there, Gunnar is there, and I’m comfortable with Coach Gantt because I learned so much from him last summer. It’s a relief to get the decision out of the way. I don’t have to check e-mails every day now.”
Cauble can see the benefits from Free’s Legion summer already. There’s a certain confidence that comes from pitching in front of big crowds at Newman Park.
Free also has made major strides with a curveball and changeup, and he plans to mix them with his fastball and cutter this spring.
Physically, Free has spent hours with the weights, and it’s starting to show. He’s a pretty big guy now.
“Guys have told me how hard the fall workouts are at Catawba, and I won’t to be ready for that,” Free said. “I understand why they do all that work. You want it to be tough in the fall, so you can be good in the spring.”
Cauble also expects to be good this spring. With a host of experienced hurlers, he’s certain the Cougars will have their deepest staff ever.
Free should be a horse.
“With the work he’s put in and with the experience and knowledge he has, Ethan should have a stellar senior year,” Cauble said. “It’s amazing how far he’s come. It makes us feel pretty good about our program.”