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Prep Baseball: Carson vs. Piedmont

CHINA GROVE — Carson baseball coach Chris Cauble and Piedmont coach Milt Flow have some history, and their meetings have illustrated why no one in his right mind tries to make a living predicting the outcome of prep baseball games.
Cauble was coaching West Rowan in 2003 when Flow brought his Piedmont team to Mount Ulla and stomped the Falcons 16-1 in a second-round playoff matchup West was favored to win. In 2005, Cauble’s last season at West, his Falcons returned the favor, 10-run-ruling a strong Piedmont team.
The Cauble vs. Flow meetings in Cauble’s debut season at West in 2000 were a little more typical of their clashes. Piedmont won 5-4 at Piedmont. West won 6-5 at West.
“We had our battles when we were both in the old South Piedmont,” Cauble said of Flow. “But our relationship always has been good. After I came to Carson (2006-08), we scrimmaged Piedmont the first three yeras because I knew what kind of program Coach Flow had. If you could do OK against Piedmont, you were going to do OK in your league.”
Cauble and Flow will shake hands again tonight when Cauble’s Cougars and Flow’s Panthers clash in China Grove at 7 p.m. in the fourth round of the 3A playoffs. The winner moves on to the best-of-three Western Regional championship series against the Burns-North Buncombe survivor.
While Piedmont won the 2A state title a year ago, Carson has never been this far in the state playoffs.
“Obviously, the intensity will be up, but I think you just go out and play ball like it’s just a normal game,” Carson’s veteran catcher Bryson Prugh said.
But in some respects, it won’t be business as usual. Cauble said Carson set a baseball-crowd school record for Tuesday’s third-round game against neighbor South Rowan. That record may be challenged tonight based on the swarm of cowbell-ringing Piedmont fans that jammed into Staton Field to watch Piedmont end East Rowan’s season on Tuesday.
“All of our kids expected to play East again, and I think we would’ve been excited to play East again,” Cauble said. “But playing in the fourth round — that really special, and I don’t care who you’re playing. At the same time, it’s only special if you go out and execute and score a few runs.”
Piedmont (18-8) and Carson (24-6) are similar. Neither tears the cover off the ball. Both have standout pitchers and both are known for stellar defense. If it’s not a 2-1 or 3-2 game, it will be a surprise.
“You look at their stats and at our stats, and they’re close,” Cauble said. “Probably it’ll come to down to one mental mistake or physical mistake. I just hope we’re not the team that makes that mistake.”
Carson is batting .294 as a team, which won’t usually get you to the fourth round. But the Cougars also have a team ERA of 1.81, and that can take you all the way.
“We’ve been scoring runs in some unique ways the last two games,” Cauble said. “Ninety percent of playoff games are low-scoring. If you’ve got a chance to push a run across early, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to get that done. It’s so important to score early. Score early and you can see on the faces of the other team how much pressure that puts on them.”
Carson’s pitching situation tonight is better than you might think, considering the Cougars played playoff games Monday and Tuesday.
Right-hander John Daugherty, Rowan County Player of the Year in 2013, was efficient Monday when he nearly tossed a perfect game against Southern Guilford. He delivered only 73 pitches.
Daugherty (7-2) played the outfield Tuesday against South and reported his farm felt fine. After three days of rest, he’s listed as the probable starting pitcher for tonight.
Dillon Atwell (9-2) won Tuesday’s South game and the workhorse needed 112 pitches. Atwell has told Cauble he’s ready if needed, but if he’s used, it would be for a single inning, to get out of a jam or maybe in a closing situation if Carson can get in that position.
East Carolina signee Colton Laws (5-2) has been dealing with elbow tenderness since the SPC tournament, but Cauble hasn’t ruled out his return. Beyond those three senior right-handers, there’s lefty Heath Mitchem and righty Dylan Snider. Neither has pitched a lot, but both have been good when called on.
“A lot of teams we’ve played have only one good pitcher,” Prugh said. “We’re lucky to have all the arms that we do, and if we do get to a best-of-three series, then our pitching depth becomes a big advantage.”
To get to series play, Carson has to survive one more one-and-done round tonight. That won’t be easy.
Piedmont’s pitcher will be Corey Sikes, a senior who signed with Western Carolina. Sikes went 11-0 in Piedmont’s championship run a year ago.
“He’s a lefty, and he’s very good,” Cauble said. “The most comparable pitcher we’ve seen is Cox Mill’s (Julian) Smith. We’re capable of being successful against Sikes, but we have to execute at the plate.”
Piedmont’s offense is sparked by North Carolina A&T signee Nigel Hester, the center fielder and leadoff man. He’s homered in three straight games.
Defensively, shortstop Hunter Jones, who signed with Charlotte, is the anchor for the Panthers.
Daugherty is also Carson’s top RBI man. Center fielder Michael Morrison and Prugh have home-run power.
It’s not unusual with a one-and-done playoff system, but both these teams have gotten to this game even though they didn’t win their leagues.
East won the SPC tournament and regular season. Piedmont plays in an equally difficult conference — the Southern Carolina — where Marvin Ridge won the regular season and Weddington won the league tourney.
East knocked out Weddington in Round 2. South knocked out Marvin Ridge in Round 2.
“We play in a good league and Piedmont does also,” Cauble said. “Marvin Ridge and Weddington are teams known statewide for playing great baseball.”
After Carson lost to East in the SPC tournament final, the Cougars regrouped in the playoffs.
“We’ve banded together a little more, pulled for each other a little more,” Cauble said. “The game at Southern Guilford, I saw a different side of this team. We were very emotional.”
This is Carson’s eighth baseball season. This is the first time that Carson, which has several players who have been together since they were 6 years old, has been the last Rowan team standing.
All six Rowan schools have been the county’s last team at least once in the last 11 seasons. It was South in 2012, North in 2011, East from 2008-10, Salisbury in 2007 and West in 2004. And now Carson.
“We’re playing for an awful lot,” Cauble said. “We’ve had volleyball teams that made it to the state championship game the last two years, but we haven’t come this far in any other sport. We’ll be playing this game not just for us and our fans but for the whole Carson athletics program.”

NOTES: Tuesday’s victory against South was the 137th for Cauble at Carson. He won 136 in his days at West and is 273-131 coaching in Rowan. The county record for head-coaching wins belongs to North’s Bill Kesler (295). … Carson is 17-0 this season against teams from outside Rowan County. The Cougars lost three times to East, twice to South and once to West. … Flow pitched for the 1984 Piedmont team that won the 2A state championship, while Cauble was an assistant coach on East’s 1995 3A state champs and led West to the 3A state championship series 10 years ago.

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