Boys of Summer: Legion baseball scheduled to open on road Sunday
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Rowan County American Legion is coming off a state championship season in which it won 80 percent (32-8) of the time and added another winning chapter to the program’s storied history.
Coach Jim Gantt returns for his 16th season at the helm, and West Rowan head coach Seth Graham returns as a key assistant. Graham will direct the team in the early going, with Gantt down in Georgia coaching Catawba in the NCAA DII Southeast Regional.
While the Rowan County coaching staff is a constant, the majority of the players suiting up at Newman Park will be new faces.
Missing from the stout lineup that started Rowan’s final game in the Southeast Regional last summer are Harrison Baucom, Michael Caldwell, Riley Myers, Heath Mitchem, Dustin Ritchie, Kacey Otto and Jeremy Simpson.
Otto, a West Rowan senior, still has eligibility, but unless there’s a change in his status, the only returnees from Rowan’s standard 2015 starting lineup will be Juan Garcia and Hunter Shepherd.
Garcia is a 2015 West Rowan graduate and hasn’t been in organized competition since last summer, but Graham said he’s “looked really good.”
That’s encouraging news, as Garcia was tremendous last summer, both at third base and as Rowan’s No. 3 hitter. He paced the team — by a lot — with 48 RBIs and batted .415.
Shepherd batted .329 with 23 RBIs for Rowan last year. He plays for the Greater Cabarrus Stallions during the high school season, and the Catawba signee produced a banner senior year. He batted .504 with 37 RBIs in 35 games. The big lefty hit for power as well as average — six homers and 17 doubles.
Also back with Rowan County is Lee Poteat, West’s right fielder. Poteat batted .277 and had 17 RBIs in 65 Legion at-bats. A big part of his role was playing left field whenever Myers pitched.
East Rowan’s John Owen was used almost exclusively as a relief pitcher last summer — he went 3-0 — and had only 10 at-bats as a backup catcher. While he’ll be counted on heavily as a starting pitcher this time, he may also have a role as a position player. Owen won 10 games for East in the high school season while batting.287 with 14 RBIs.
While the mound crew will be mostly new, the staff does have three experienced anchors in Bryan Ketchie, Owen and Shepherd.
Shepherd didn’t pitch for the Stallions this year because of elbow concerns. He’s been pronounced healthy, but Rowan is going to be careful with how often and how much he’s used. Graham said Shepherd might be well-suited for a closer role.
Ketchie, a crafty lefty who is headed to Catawba, was 6-0 with two saves for Rowan last summer while putting up a 2.31 ERA.
He followed up that performance with a strong high school season (7-2) for West.
“Ketchie will start the opener whenever we play it,” Graham said. “Owen will start our second game.”
Sawyer Strickland, a right-hander and another Greater Cabarrus Stallion, was sensational for Rowan late last summer (1-0, 2 saves) in high-pressure games in the state tournament and regional. Strickland went 9-1 for the Stallions as a senior. Like Ketchie and Shepherd, Strickland has signed with Catawba.
Rowan will count on two more Stallions this summer. Seth Cauble is a catcher/outfielder, while Dalton Lankford could be the starting shortstop. Both are rising seniors. Cauble hit .324 for the Stallions, while Lankford batted .328.
Rowan has four players from North Rowan on the roster. They are catcher Jake Pritchard, who played for Southern Rowan last summer; lefty pitcher Brandon White, who missed last summer with a torn ACL; pitcher/outfielder Noah Gonzalez, and lefty pitcher Joe Harrison.
Pritchard batted over .400 for North with 20 RBIs. White, a Belmont Abbey signee also is a solid lefty hitter and might get some at-bats at DH or left field. Gonzalez is talented. He’s blessed with speed and a strong arm. Harrison was 5-0 for the Cavaliers, mostly in a relief role.
There are number of East players on the roster in addition to Owen.
Chandler Blackwelder, who has speed and a strong glove, has a chance to start in centerfield. He hit .290 for the Mustangs and was 13-for-14 stealing bases.
Side-arming right-hander Colby Myrick and lefty Hayden Setzer have a chance to help on the mound, and second baseman Tanner File and first baseman Nathan Hill also are competing for playing time.
The West Rowan contingent will be the team’s largest. In addition to Ketchie, Garcia and Poteat, outfielder/pitcher Caleb Link, middle infielder Brett Graham, infielder Brandon Walton, outfielder/pitcher Olen Stamper and catcher Trevor Atwood are on the current roster.
Walton, a lefty with power, played third base for West and has a chance to be an impact hitter. He batted .432 with four homers and 23 RBIs for the Falcons. Atwood batted .312 with 19 RBIs and is a capable backstop. Graham, West’s shortstop, didn’t have a high batting average, but he drove in 20 runs, so he had clutch hits. Link is a strong defensive outfielder and also was West’s No. 3 pitcher. Stamper pitched well in relief for West.
The only Carson player on the team is catcher Pearce Wilhelm, who didn’t play a lot for the Cougars because of Ryan Bearden’s presence. Wilhelm’s arm has impressed Coach Graham.
“It’s a cannon,” Graham said.
There are no Salisbury High players on the roster for the first time in a number of years.
“We think we’re going to have a pretty good team,” Graham said. “Our pitching should be our strength, and if we can get the middle infield figured out, we can be good defensively.”
Rowan won’t have to cut down to its final 18-man roster until June 25, shortly before the playoffs.
Rowan was scheduled to play at home Saturday, but that was game has been postponed. The opener is now set for Sunday at Davidson County.
Area III will have 13 teams this season, with seven in the Northern Division (Davidson County, Eastern Randolph, Greensboro, High Point, Kernersville, Randolph County and Winston-Salem) and six in the Southern Division (Rowan County, Kannapolis, Mocksville, Mooresville, Stanly County and Concord).