Rowan home for Area III semifinals

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 11, 2014

SALISBURY — Rowan County comes into tonight’s opening game of the Area III semifinals at Newman Park well-rested and with at least nine members of its 11-man pitching staff available.
Rowan (23-6) faces a mostly unfamiliar opponent in Winston-Salem. Usually when it’s time to play against the Northern Division, Rowan encounters Randolph, Kernersville, High Point or Burlington.
Winston-Salem (14-10) is a lot less rested, but it’s battle-tested after coming back from a 2-1 deficit to win a five-game, second-round struggle with Eastern Randolph and it’s also riding the wave of momentum provided by the walkoff hit by Caleb Cox that pulled out Game 5.
Rowan and Winston-Salem both were No. 1 seeds after the regular season with Rowan winning the Southeast Division and Winston-Salem taking the Northwest Division. That necessitated a coin flip for home-field advantage that was executed on Friday morning by commissioner Jim Lippard. Rowan coach Jim Gantt wasn’t present for the flipping, but he reported that Winston-Salem called “Tails.” The coin landed heads, so Rowan is home for Games 1 and 3 in the best-of-five series and on the road for Game 2.
Game 2 will be played at Mocksville’s Rich Park — Rowan just beat Mocksville in Round 2 — an interesting development that is great news for Rowan fans. Rich Park is a much shorter trip than Winston-Salem’s home at Mount Tabor High. There’s a lot more seating, a covered grandstand and more concessions.
Winston-Salem coach Mike Lovelace said Mocksville’s Sonny Kurfees approached him about playing Game 2 (and Game 4, if necessary) at Rich Park. Lovelace has been coaching Winston-Salem for a while, but his ties with Mocksville go way back. Lovelace, a 41-year-old who has been part of Legion baseball in the area since he was a 16-year-old player, was Mocksville’s head coach for 12 seasons.
“Rich Park is just a lot more user-friendly facility than what we have,” Lovelace said. “You’re only going to get 30 cars in our parking lot near the field, so everyone else would have to walk a quarter-mile from the main school parking lot to the ball field. Rich Park is a good place to play. It’s a treat for us to play there.”
Winston-Salem is giving up a significant home-field advantage to get on a bus to play at a neutral site in Game 2 that is likely to be swarming with Rowan fans. Lovelace said his team has played outstanding baseball at home and drew its biggest home crowd of the year on Thursday.
Rowan actually made an offer to host this entire playoff series.
“But I know how tough it is to play at Newman, and it’s just hard to beat Rowan there,” Lovelace said. “We didn’t want to play them all there.”
Winston-Salem is a strong team, a much older, more experienced team than Rowan. Lovelace said 15 of his 17 players already are in college or are headed off to college in August. Eight of his players will be in the programs at Catawba Valley Community College or Surry Community College.
“We’re a veteran team, and it’s the most talented team I’ve ever assembled,” Lovelace said.
Rowan has no college players and only seven recent high-school graduates — pitcher Connor Johnson (Catawba), pitcher Chase Jarrett (Brunswick CC), outfielder Luke Setzer (Catawba), second baseman Michael Caldwell (Pitt CC), catcher/outfielder Dustin Ritchie (Pitt CC), catcher Michael Pinkston (Guilford) and first baseman Chance Bowden (Catawba). Eleven of Rowan’s 18 will return to high school this fall.
The challenge for Winston-Salem has been getting its whole roster to every game.
“We had just 10 guys for the fifth game of the Eastern Randolph series,” Lovelace said. “Our left fielder hurt a thumb diving for a ball, so we finished with nine. We’ll be lucky to bring 12 or 13 to Newman Park Saturday.”
Winston-Salem’s Area III all-stars included pitcher Jacob Craver, catcher Hank Niblock, second baseman Tanner Lomax and outfielder Ty Andrus.
“We’ve got some good ones, but when I was at Newman Park for the Area III All-Star Game, it seemed like Rowan was the whole Southern Division team,” Lovelace said with a laugh.
Rowan had 11 all-stars.
Winston-Salem is not totally a Winston-Salem team. While about half the roster does come from Lovelace’s Mount Tabor squad or from R.J. Reynolds, Post 55 also has a player from North Forsyth, two from Mt. Airy and a handful from 3A power West Stokes.
Craver, a 6-foot-4 lefty, is a West Stokes product. He’s headed to join the Charlotte 49ers program and will be the only D-I signee in this series.
Another of the West Stokes products is Gavin Goodson, the son of West Stokes coach Kirk Goodson. Goodson, who is bound for Chowan, hit three homers in one game.
“We take our hacks and we usually swing the bats well,” Lovelace said. “We went into the Eastern Randolph series batting .330 as a team and averaging 15 or 16 hits a game.”
Eastern Randolph beat Winston-Salem twice with off-speed pitchers, so it’s possible Rowan lefties Brandon White and Hunter Shepherd, who have good curves and changeups, will match up well with Post 55.
Gantt said Friday that Rowan will rely on lefty Connor Johnson to start Game 1. Johnson has won 20 straight decisions starting with the 2013 Legion season through his high school season at East Rowan and extending through this summer, but he hasn’t been as sharp as usual in his last two outings.
“If he’s on, he gives us a chance against anyone,” Gantt said.
Jarrett bounced back from recent struggles to pitch very well in the Mocksville series — he made it into the seventh inning in Game 2 — but Gantt isn’t certain who will start Game 2 of this series yet. Jarrett, Shepherd, White and Ryan Jones are the candidates. A lot depends, obviously, on who is needed in relief in Game 1.
“I think we came into the season with a couple of guys thinking they would have to carry the mail for us on the mound,” Gantt said. “But our bullpen has come along as the season progressed. It’s done a nice job. I hope guys are starting to realize that they just have to go as far as they can go, and then we’ve got some other guys who can help them out.”
Davidson County is the host for this year’s state tournament, so it will be Area III’s No. 2 seed in the upcoming state tournament.
The No. 1 seed from Area III has come down to Rowan, Winston-Salem, High Point and the Mooresville Moors. The Moors are at caon-flip winner High Point at 6 p.m. tonight to start one semifinal, while the other one gets rolling at Newman Park.
Craver or Shane Sullivan will start on the mound for Winston-Salem.
“I expect a great atmosphere for all the games,” Lovelace said. “We’ve got to regroup quickly from Eastern Randolph, but this could be a tremendous series.”