Rowan scores late to win state tourney opener

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 23, 2016

By David Shaw

WINGATE — It’s called Late-Game-Execution — and Rowan County submitted an end-of-semester thesis on the subject Friday night.

Post 342 kicked off the American Legion state tournament at Wingate University’s Ron Christopher Stadium by scoring five runs in the seventh and eighth innings and rallying for a 7-4 victory against Wilmington.

“Everyone knows it’s a nine-inning ballgame,” outfielder Lee Poteat said after Rowan (29-11) earned a second-round match with Pitt County today in the double-elimination tourney. “It only takes one inning to put it together and score three or four runs like we did.”

Rowan coupled another durable start by right-hander John Owen with some late-game fireworks to slip past Area II champion Wilmington Post 10 (20-3). Owen wasn’t as dominant as he was a week ago against High Point, but he provided a sturdy, complete-game performance.

“His last two outings he’s been very efficient, very good,” coach Jim Gantt said after Owen yielded three earned runs and scattered nine singles in a 97-pitch effort. “He fills up the strike zone. That’s what he did all year in high school and what he’s done for us. He can throw all of his pitches for strikes in any count.”

Owen (5-1) struck out seven, walked none and retired Wilmington’s leadoff batter in seven of nine innings. He worked quickly, with visible confidence, and struggled only in the last of the fifth when Post 10 sent eight men to the plate and scored all of its runs.

“Other than that one inning, I was able to get the first two batters out most of the time,” Owen said with a boyish grin. “There were a few two-out hits, but there’s really not much you can do with that.”

Rowan, the defending state champion, used a first-inning error and Brandon Walton’s third-inning, RBI-single to go up 2-0 against right-hander Brandon Boone — one of five college players on Post 10’s roster. Boone, previously unbeaten this summer, was unusually wild. He hit five batters, threw a wild pitch and committed a balk before coach Scott Sandlin pulled him after seven innings.

“He was a little off today,” Sandlin said. “He never got into a comfortable rhythm, but some of that was (because of) Rowan. There were fundamentally sound at the plate and did a good job extending their at-bats.”

Boone needed 57 pitches to complete the first three innings before Wilmington — state champ in 2013 — could crack the code against Owen in the fifth. Jonathan Kuebler lined an 0-2 pitch into left field for a one-out, run-scoring hit that halved Rowan’s lead. Then came a misplayed bunt single to the right side and Max Johnson’s blooper that loaded the bases. With two away Kennedy Hardy ripped a two-run single to left-center — and when the ball was mishandled by outfielder Seth Cauble, a third run crossed, giving Wilmington a 4-2 advantage.

“We misplayed a bunt coverage, then we tried to do something else and weren’t paying attention,” Gantt said. “So it wasn’t panic mode, but we knew if we could correct that and get the lead back, we were gonna be OK.”

They were, but not until the top of the seventh when Boone began to wither in the July heat. It began when Chandler Blackwelder (2-for-5, 2 runs scored) flared a leadoff hit into center field and Dalton Lankford steered a sharp grounder into left. One out later Poteat’s Baltimore-chop double went down the field line and made it 4-3. Then Trevor Atwood deposited a soft-serve single into center for a two-run hit and a 5-4 Rowan lead. Walton raced home on a two-out wild pitch before Post 10 could escape.

“All those little things we did,” Atwood said, “they all worked.”

They worked again in the eighth against Wilmington reliever Brad Pennington. Blackwelder coaxed a leadoff walk, took second base on Atwood’s sacrifice and scored when Poteat (2-for-5, 2 RBIs) bounced a two-out single to left. When Owen retired Post 10 in order in the last of the ninth — his fourth perfect inning — Rowan had a read-all-about-it victory.

“I really feel like our guys, late in the game, played the game to win it,” Gantt said. “Instead of playing not to lose. Their demeanor looked different than it has lately.”

Perhaps Sandlin summed it up best. “They won the first three (innings), we won the next three and won the last three,” he said from the team van’s driver’s seat. “The beginning and the end are what counts.”

NOTES: Owen threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of the 34 batters he faced. Lankford went 2-for-4 and scored twice. … Gantt said left-hander Bryan Ketchie (6-2) will start today’s 4:30 p.m. second-round game against Area I champion Pitt County (23-5).

Rowan Co.      101 000 410 — 7  9  1

Wilmington    000 040 000 — 4  9  4

WP — John Owen (5-1). LP — Brandon Boone (5-1).