By Mike London
CHINA GROVE — Carson, East Rowan and Salisbury start the one-and-done baseball playoffs tonight at home, while South Rowan, West Rowan and North Rowan hit the road.
While their own games will occupy 99 percent of the player’s thoughts, some will follow the other scores with more than passing interest.
Once someone is a teammate, they’re life-long family, and six years ago, players who will wear the uniforms of Carson, Salisbury and West tonight were all on the same side. They played for the Rowan Little League all-star team (ages 10-11) that prevailed in the tough District 2 tournament and placed second to Greenville in the state tournament in High Point.
“Little League was a fun time, and I’ve stayed close with guys at other schools,” Carson shortstop Austin McNeill said. “Being teammates with those guys when we were young, that’s always made our games with West and Salisbury more fun. And baseball is all about working hard and having fun.”
Carson pitcher Dillon Atwell (9-1,1.76 ERA) said that Little League powerhouse was a lot like the Cougars, who have gotten production from all nine spots in the lineup and are batting a sizzling .367 as a team.
“The thing I remember about that team is about all of us were even on the field, and that’s what helped us do as well as we did,” Atwell said. “We do know those guys well, so when we play West or Salisbury, it’s almost like playing in the backyard.”
Coached by dads James Collins and Brian Atwell, the roster of the 2007 all-stars included McNeill, Atwell, John Daugherty, and John Patella (Carson), Ben Ritchie and Scott Friedrich (Salisbury) and Nick Collins, Michael Ball, Omar Bautista, Cody McNeely, Tyler Stamp and Adam Ratledge (West).
“I was just kind of a chunky kid then,” said Daugherty, the county’s breakout guy of 2013 with .431 batting average, 27 RBIs and an 8-0 pitching record. “But that was a pretty stacked team we had. A lot of the county’s top players now were on that team.”
Stamp quarterbacked West’s football team successfully, while Ratledge wrestled. The other 10 boys of the summer of 2007 will be important to their baseball teams’ chances tonight.
Ritchie, who got Rowan’s 2007 District 2 run started by pounding two homers — in the same inning — against Winston-Salem National, will be in left field for Salisbury (12-11), as the Hornets host Starmount (8-15) in 2A.
“I dropped bombs that summer,” Ritchie said with a chuckle. “I hit eight homers and batted 5-something. When I see those Little League guys now in baseball or football, I always tell them, ‘Good job.’ They’re still my friends. The bonds are never separated.”
Friedrich, who has pitched a no-hitter, will play right field for the Hornets, as Brian Bauk takes the mound. It was Friedrich’s mom, Liz, who reminded the Post of the 2007 team by emailing the team picture that still sits on her desk.
“It seems like a long time ago,” Scott Friedrich said. “But I do follow those guys, mostly by Twitter and text.”
Either Ball (6-2), the winning pitcher when the 2007 Rowan team edged East Rowan 3-2 in the district final, or Bautista (4-4), who won twice in the 2007 state tournament, will pitch for West (17-8) tonight at always-strong Catholic (19-6). McNeely, a .300 hitter and quick defender, usually is in left field. Collins, who has been a terrific, all-round player, usually roams center field and he could pitch out of the bullpen.
Tonight’s most compelling game is Robinson (11-13) at Carson (23-3). McNeill (shortstop), Patella (second base), Atwell (pitcher) and the versatile Daugherty (somewhere) figure to start for the Cougars, and all are juniors, which means Carson can be a force again in 2014.
In basketball, if an 11-13 squad was visiting a 23-3 team, a blowout would be a sure thing. But baseball is a unique sport, and Robinson’s East Carolina-bound pitcher Philip Perry could make it a struggle for the Cougars. Perry has been a showcase teammate of Salisbury star Brian Bauk and South Rowan stud Eric Tyler on the South Charlotte Panthers.
When No. 5 seed Cox Mill won the SPC tournament, the brackets got shaken up. Third-place finisher Robinson slipped down to the SPC’s No. 4 slot, and now the Cougars, who have won eight straight, get the Bulldogs.
“Well, it isn’t the easiest draw,” Carson coach Chris Cauble said. “You know you’re going to face Division I pitchers at some point in the playoffs. You just don’t expect it to be in the first round.”
Carson rolled 7-0 against Robinson in March, edged the Bulldogs 8-7 in April and has seen Perry.
“I think it does help that we’ve faced him before,” Carson third baseman Connor Bridges said. “But he’s a very good pitcher.”
Carson is deep enough that it could win the 3A state championship. Then again, it’s not inconceivable that Carson’s season — and every Rowan season — could end tonight. That’s the nature of one-and-done baseball.
Not that anyone wants that. It’s been a good season — with the county going 6-for-6 at playoff-qualifying — and there have been highlight-film moments — none more memorable than Daugherty’s three-run homer off his old buddy Bautista, a single swing that decided a tense Atwell vs. Bautista pitching duel in the semifinals of the NPC tournament.
“Times like that,” said Patella, with the same grin he must’ve worn as a little guy in 2007, “give you a chance to talk a little smack to guys you know.”
NOTES: While Carson’s draw wasn’t ideal, East Rowan is facing the defending champ in 3A. In a 2 vs. 2 matchup, East (12-13) tackles Weddington (17-9) at Staton Field and will count on lefty Connor Johnson (5-3).
Salisbury and West are seeking their first playoff wins since 2008. … South (18-8) is at Northeast Guilford (15-10) at 8 p.m. Dillon Parker (8-1) is expected to pitch for South, which hopes to repeat last year’s playoff run. South won three times before it ran into Weddington.
North Rowan (10-12) received a wild card in 1A and goes to Cherryville (14-12). Clint Veal (4-4) will likely pitch. … Carson assistant Bill Elliott will be at West’s game tonight. McNeely is his grandson.
In 4A, Davie (16-7) will try to upset Ardrey Kell (21-4) in Charlotte. … Except for South, games are set for 7 p.m.
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