Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 11, 2013

By David Shaw
GRANITE QUARRY — The bell has tolled for East Rowan’s baseball team, ending a season that left many devotees scratching their heads.
East bowed out of the 3A state playoffs Friday night with an 8-0 first-round loss to defending champion Weddington at Staton Field.
“You can’t be unbelievable every year,” coach Brian Hightower said after the Mustangs (12-14) finished their first losing season since 2003. “I’ve been here nine years and we’ve had a lot of success. When you have a down year like this it sort of shocks not only the people who are playing it but also the people coaching it, the people in the community.”
Hightower knew his work was cut out for him this season with only three seniors — DH Josh Gobble and infielders Hunter Brooks and Hunter Poston — on the roster. But he may have expected more against Weddington (18-9) in the season finale.
“It’s still a great team,” Brooks noted after East managed only four hits against a trio of Warrior pitchers. “The whole time we played, this season and tonight, we never gave up. That’s why I’ve loved playing with them the last three or four years and why I was glad to go out with them.”
East had several problems, but none bigger than winning pitcher Sean Collins. The 6-foot-2 junior right-hander made his second start since missing a month with shoulder tendonitis and worked rapidly, with visible confidence. Blending a buzzing fastball with a tight curve, he struck out nine batters in five innings, threw first-pitch strikes to 15 of 22 hitters and lowered his ERA to 2.13.
“I came in prepared,” said Collins (2-1), who has already made a verbal commitment to pitch for Virginia. “We knew what to throw most of the time. I got ahead with the fastball and got them out with the curve. They didn’t take many good swings at my curveball tonight.”
The only thing not to like about Collins was having to face him.
“His curveball was hard to pick up,” said East catcher Dustin Ritchie. “He was throwing first-pitch fastballs, then coming back with the curve if he got ahead. It led to a lot of strikes because he was locating so well.”
East starter Connor Johnson (5-4) wasn’t as fortunate. The junior southpaw lasted only 21/3 innings and was tagged for five runs, three of them earned, and was chased after yielding a two-run homer to Collins in the top of the third.
“We just got to him early,” said Weddington coach Travis Poole. “That was important because he’s got a lot of potential. We knew if we let him settle in and get in control, we might be in trouble.”
East was already behind 7-0 when Michael Caldwell sandwiched a base hit to center field around infield singles by Ike Freeman and Ritchie with none out in the last of the fourth. But Collins refocused and escaped unharmed by fanning three straight batters.
“That shows what a strong pitcher he is,” Brooks said. “He should be able to pitch on a high level. He’s that talented.”
Hightower agreed, but saw the fourth inning as a missed opportunity. “(Collins) struck out 5-6-7,” he said. “We probably needed to score three or four right there to give ourselves a chance.”
East loaded the bases in the fifth two outs when Caldwell collected his second hit. But the rally fizzled when Ritchie went down swinging.
“We always talk about great pitching and great fielding, which we didn’t have tonight,” Hightower said. “That’s the story. They were by far the better team.”