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American Legion Baseball: Atwood’s hit gives Rowan a state championship

By Mike London

mike.london@salisburypost.com

WINGATE — Trevor Atwood’s walk-off single bounded high over a drawn-in Union County infield, pinch-runner Noah Gonzalez dashed home from third base, and Rowan County players, coaches and fans celebrated a 3-2 victory and a state championship that appear to amaze even coach Jim Gantt.
“This team started out 10-7,” said a smiling Gantt as he toweled sweat from his steaming forehead and shook his head. “But they never gave up. They stayed with it. And they came to play every day.”
Rowan (33-11) lost five times this summer to High Point, but it has gone 23-4 since falling on June 18 to Chapin-Newberry, S.C., the defending World Series champs. Rowan has won back-to-back state titles for the first time in its storied history. Starting with the triumph by Salisbury Post 14 in 1955, this is the ninth state crown for the program that calls Newman Park home. Since the 1950s, Rowan has won at least one state championship in every decade.
Juan Garcia rescued Rowan from the jaws of a defeat that would have meant having to play Union County in a second championship game when he crushed a game-tying home run to lead off the bottom of the ninth. Garcia stepped to the plate for the 163rd time this summer, and he finally smacked his first homer. He clobbered it like Roy Hobbs clobbered them in “The Natural.” The bruised baseball crashed off the scoreboard, and the eruption from the Rowan dugout was even noisier than the homer.
“We’re down a run, I’m leading off, and I’m just trying to get on base any way that I can, but I was seeing the ball really well today,” Garcia said. “I believe that pitch was a slider and it kind of hung belt high. I was able to drive it and get it up in the air. Last year, they called me “Mr. Clutch” when I had a lot of RBIs. It was nice to be Mr. Clutch again today.”
Gantt watched Garcia’s drive take flight with a mix of excitement and disbelief.
“I’m watching the left fielder and he starts running, so I know it’s over his head,” Gantt said. “But then that ball just kept going and going and going. And then it hits the scoreboard.”
That tied it. Rowan still had to win it.
Union County right-hander Cameron Smetak, a Wingate signee, had been fantastic all afternoon in sweltering conditions as he battled Rowan’s relentless strike-thrower John Owen in a pitching duel for the ages.
“Smetak was great today in that heat,” Gantt said. “But when Garcia hit the home run, it was like he just ran out of gas.”
The last batter Smetak faced was Brandon Walton, who followed Garcia’s homer with a patient walk.
Jeremy Parker relieved Smetak and Jake Pritchard’s roller up the first-base line created chaos and a Rowan break.
“I saw the first baseman was charging in to try to tag me, so I went as wide as I could on the baseline and made a dive for the bag,” Pritchard said. “He tagged me on the shoulder, but I knocked the ball out.”
When the dust cleared, Rowan had runners at first and third with no outs. Pritchard stole second without a throw, and then pinch-runner Gonzalez scored on Atwood’s hit. Atwood, who has shared catching duties with Pritchard this summer, was batting for the 100th time. He came through with his 26th RBI. That’s a high percentage of key hits.
“I had a job to do up there and I knew I couldn’t strike out,” Atwood said. “I had to get the ball out of the infield whether it was by a flyball or a base hit.”
The day started well for Rowan with Owen mowing down Union County Post 535 in the top of the first, and Rowan getting a run in the bottom of the inning on singles by Chandler Blackwelder, Dalton Lankford and Garcia. Garcia’s two-out single was a solid one to center.
After that, Owen dug in — and Smetak dug in and matched him.
Baseball can be cruel. Considering the quality of the opposition, both hurlers may have pitched the best games of their lives. Neither would get the win.
“I’ve never pitched in that kind of heat before,” said Owen, who hurled Rowan to a victory against Wilmington in the tournament opener on Friday. “But everything (fastball, curveball, changeup) was working today, and I was getting a few more strikeouts than usual. At least it seemed that way.”
The innings whirled by. The game was in the fifth before it was an hour old, and it was still 1-0.
“What a workhorse John Owen is,” Gantt said. “The guy weighs 150 pounds — or at least he was 150 when this one started. He might’ve been down to 130 before he was done.”
Union County (29-4) tied it in the seventh. It was an unearned run triggered by an error that opened the inning. With two men out, leadoff man Todd Elwood whacked an opposite-field, run-scoring double between Garcia and the third-base bag.
Owen, a right-hander who will be a senior at East Rowan High, allowed a two-out double in the eighth — it was driven to deep left-center by Chandler Castleberry — but he got the next batter out routinely to keep it 1-all.
Catcher Kevin Dobos started the Union County ninth with a ground single through the left side. No. 9 man JT Dunn went to the plate to sacrifice the runner to second, but Owen struck him out.
With lefties Elwood and Scout McFalls coming to the plate next, Gantt headed to the mound, and Owen exited to a well-earned ovation.
Southpaw Bryan Ketchie, the starter and winner for Rowan on Saturday in the second round of the tournament, got Elwood to pop up a bunt attempt for the second out. But McFalls blooped a soft single to left, and then Drew Little singled sharply through the left side to give Union a 2-1 lead. Rowan was fortunate the deficit didn’t swell to 3-1. Rowan got the third out on a disputed play at first base. Hunter Shepherd had to go high in the air to glove a throw from Ketchie, and Union County had a reasonable argument that the runner touched the bag before Shepherd came down.
The call stood, and Rowan, as it has all year, did what it needed to do in the bottom of the ninth.
“We came from behind on Monday (on Lee Poteat’s triple) and we did it again today,” Gantt said. “Give a lot of credit to our success to Mark Cauble, who makes our schedule. We played a very tough one. Our schedule showed up in this tournament. We were better prepared than some teams.”
Ketchie got the win. Smetak got a tough loss. Owen got one of the greatest no-decisions of all-time.
“Owen was unbelievable,” Gantt said. “Even in the ninth inning, his demeanor never changed. I know he was tired, but he acted like it was just a walk in the park.”
There was one more ovation for Owen. It came after the game when he was announced as tournament MVP. He added that award to the ones he’s won this year as Rowan County Pitcher of the Year, South Piedmont Conference Pitcher of the Year and State Games gold medalist.
Not bad for a welterweight.
•••
Rowan will start play in the Southeast Regional on Aug. 3 at Asheboro’s McCrary Park. Rowan is scheduled to play in the 4:30 p.m. game that day against Columbia, the Tennessee state champs. … In a class move, one of the Union County players brought over the ball from the game-winning hit and delivered it to Atwood. … Lankford was back at shortstop. He missed Monday’s game after being hit near his right ear on Sunday. “No way I was going to miss this,” he said.

Union County 000 000 101 — 2 11 2
Rowan County 100 000 002 — 3 10 3
W — Bryan Ketchie (8-2). L — Cameron Smetak.
HR — Rowan: Juan Garcia (1).
Leading hitters — Union: Bailey Connell 2-for-4. Chandler Castleberry 2-for-4. Drew Little 2-for-5, RBI. Rowan: Brandon Walton 2-for-3. Juan Garcia 2-for-4, 2 RBIs. Trevor Atwood 2-for-4, RBI.

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