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American Legion Baseball: Rowan rolls in regional opener

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

ASHEBORO — Tennessee center fielder Devin Symlar produced a jaw-dropping catch — over his shoulder and back to the plate while sprinting madly toward the wall — to rob Rowan County’s Brandon Walton of extra bases on Wednesday afternoon at McCrary Park.
“Everyone was asking me if I could have made that catch, and I don’t know if I could have,” Rowan center fielder Chandler Blackwelder said. “I mean, that was some catch. One of the toughest catches I’ve ever seen.”
Blackwelder still wasn’t outplayed by his counterpart in the opening round of the Southeast Regional. While he didn’t get a chance to do spectacular things in the field, Blackwelder was special at the plate in Rowan’s sharp, 8-2, victory. He marched to the plate five times, doubled twice, singled twice, and walked once. He scored two runs and drove in one.
Blackwelder entered the game batting .397 and exited at .409. He now has 81 hits and is only the seventh player in program history to reach 80 hits in a season.
“When your leadoff guy is setting the table like that, you should have a good offensive day,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said.
Blackwelder shared the day with pitcher John Owen (6-1), who survived a shaky first inning and dominated the next seven.
That top of the first was scary as line drives were flying everywhere. Three of the first four batters for Columbia, the perennial Tennessee champs, lashed solid base hits.
Columbia only got one run, mostly because Rowan catcher Trevor Atwood threw out a would-be base stealer between hits No. 2 and No. 3.
“The only thing that concerned me was that John was getting ahead, but then he wasn’t making the pitch he needed to get outs,” Gantt said. “That first hit came on an 0-2 pitch, and he doesn’t let that happen very often.”
But Rowan’s offense had the right answer — two runs in the bottom of the first against Tennessee right-hander Colton Easterwood.
“He had good speed on the ball, but it was pretty flat, pretty straight,” Blackwelder said. “It wasn’t any different than what we’ve seen from some other pitchers.”
The big hit came from the same guy who got the largest hit in the state championship game — Juan Garcia. With two out and runners at second and third, Garcia rapped a pitch to right field for two runs and a 2-1 lead.
“I was just looking for a good pitch to hit and I got a fastball and took it to the right side,” Garcia said. “Just trying to get those RBIs, and that hit really pushed our momentum. Tennessee showed by the way they swung the bats in the first inning that they were ready to play today, but then we sent John Owen out there for the second inning with the lead, and he’s just a very consistent pitcher.”
Owen took a deep breath after the first.
“I missed a spot on one pitch in the first inning, but mostly it was just a matter of getting settled in and getting used to the mound,” Owen said. “I wasn’t that worried. I didn’t think one run was going to beat us.”
He had a 1-2-3 second inning against the 6-7-8 hitters, and when the lineup turned over, he got outs from the two lefty swingers (switch-hitter Bryce Giles, who was batting over .500) and Konnor Ambrose to put up a zero in the third inning.
“After you’ve seen their swings against your pitches (Owen throws a fastball, curve and changeup), you start figuring out what they hit and what they didn’t hit,” Owen said. “And you start using that information.”
Two-out hits in the second inning by Tanner File and Blackwelder staked Owen to a 3-1 lead.
By the time he put up a 1-2-3 fifth inning, Owen, who won 10 games during the high school season for East Rowan, was rolling.
Rowan settled the outcome with a four-run fifth. Tennessee mistakes helped, but there also were some big hits. Dalton Lankford’s solid single started the inning, and Hunter Shepherd’s booming double to right-center made it 4-1.
Shepherd has been in a mini-slump and went 0-for-4 in the game that decided the state title, but he came through with his 24th double and 62nd RBI.
“It felt good to hit a ball hard again,” Shepherd said. “When the hits aren’t falling, all you can do is keep going and keep working. We knew John was going to keep it close and was going to give us a chance. We just had to give him a few runs to work with.”
Lee Poteat’s speed beat the throw on what is normally a routine groundout, and that helped get a big inning going. After runs scored on an error and a wild pitch, File’s two-out hit to right on a 3-2 pitch made it 7-1.
A boot led to an unearned run in the seventh for Tennessee, but Owen didn’t even change expression. He got through the seventh with two groundballs and a strikeout. Then he had a 1-2-3 eighth that included his fifth strikeout. The last pitch he fired, his 105th of the evening, finished the Tennessee eighth.
“You almost hate to take John out because he never looks tired,” Gantt said. “He’s a pitcher. He knows how to pitch, and he threw another great game for us.”
Blackwelder whacked a double leading off the bottom of the eighth and came around on a throwing error to complete the scoring.
Sawyer Strickland, who figures to be the starter later in the tournament if Rowan (34-11) can keep winning, threw the ninth inning. The frame began with a liner right at Blackwelder. Fittingly, the game ended with Blackwelder settling under a routine flyball.
Rowan is scheduled to play Florence, S.C., today at 4:30 p.m. Florence won, 4-0, against Covington, Ga., on Wednesday.
•••
NOTES: The final game on Wednesday, host Randolph County against Alabama champion, Troy, was delayed by rain. … In the other opening-day result, Wheeling, W. Va., pounded out a 12-0 win against Tallahassee, Fla. … Tennessee cleanup hitter Taylor Gilbert went 3-for-3 against Owen and lined out against Strickland. … Besides the great grab in center, Tennessee got outstanding defensive plays from shortstop Giles and third baseman Gilbert. … Southpaw Bryan Ketchie is the probable pitcher for Rowan today. … Tennessee (38-6) is scheduled to play an elimination game today at 9:30 a.m. against Georgia.

Tennessee 100 000 100 — 2 7 4
Rowan Co. 210 040 01x — 8 11 1
W — John Owen (6-1). L — Colton Easterbrook.
Leading hitters — Tennessee: Taylor Gilbert 3-for-4, Devin Symlar 2-for-4. Rowan: Chandler Blackwelder 4-for-4, 2 runs. Tanner File 2-for-4. Lee Poteat 2 runs. Juan Garcia 2 RBIs.

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