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American Legion Baseball: Rowan run was unexpected

SALISBURY — It was a brief high school baseball season in Rowan County, with conference champions West Rowan and North Rowan exiting the state playoffs in the first round and East Rowan bowing out in the second.
Short high school seasons don’t generally lead to American Legion state championships, much less regional championships, but players from West, North and East — reinforced by veteran Juan Garcia, a 2015 West graduate, and four Greater Cabarrus Homeschool Stallions — will be in action when the eight-team American Legion World Series starts Thursday in Shelby.
Rowan County (38-11) takes on Rockport, Ind. (31-2) to kick off the tournament at 12:30 p.m.
To say Rowan’s run has come unexpectedly is understating things, as the roster includes only four members of the Post’s 12-man first team all-county squad for 2016 (pitchers John Owen and Bryan Ketchie, catcher/left fielder Jake Pritchard and DH/relief pitcher Brandon Walton).
Incoming UNC freshman Ike Freeman, a slugger who terrorized high school pitching, and 90-mph fireballers Austin Love and Owen White, potential draft picks as soon as they graduate high school, are among the county’s studs who aren’t on this team.
Still, Rowan, the runner-up to High Point in the Southern Division of Area III playoffs, has overcome a modest 10-7 start and has reached the biggest stage for the fourth time in its storied history. Rowan has won 28 of its last 32 games.
Rowan has done it without any “older” players, with the exception of Southeast Regional MVP Garcia, the Gold Glove third baseman. In an era when most college rising sophomores are still eligible, age-wise, to play Legion ball, Rowan has gotten to the World Series without a single player who has thrown a pitch or had an at-bat for a college team.
The current Rowan team doesn’t swing the bats like the 2009 powerhouse that beat down fences on its way to the World Series in Fargo, N.D. That 2009 team had five Division I signers — Corbin Shive, Noah Holmes, Trey Holmes, Preston Troutman and Philip Miclat — in the lineup. The 2016 Rowan team doesn’t have anyone who has signed with a D-I school.
But this Rowan team can pitch, and that’s still 75 to 90 percent of the equation. While the hurlers are not overpowering and the staff strikeout totals are very low, there are a lot of guys who can spot three different pitches.
Rowan has hurlers who upset the timing of hitters and get groundballs and flyballs, and when Owen or Ketchie takes the ball, they’re out there for seven or eight innings. Hunter Shepherd, Sawyer Strickland and Noah Gonzalez threw game-of-their-lives sort of outings in the regional tournament where Rowan went 5-0 — on the heels of a 5-0 breeze through the state tournament.
There’s no doubt the key to all of this is Jim Gantt, who has been the head coach of Rowan County American Legion since 2001 and whose record is now 463-174. That means his teams have won 73 percent of the time.
A number of players have performed disproportionately to their high school careers this summer for Gantt — notably right fielder Lee Poteat, center fielder Chandler Blackwelder and second baseman Tanner File.
Poteat, a .233 hitter as a high school senior at West, has been fantastic. Headed to St. Andrews, he’s batting .436 with 56 runs and 48 RBIs. He’s also a marvelous right fielder with blazing speed and a powerful arm. Poteat’s 34 steals are the most by a Rowan player in a season since Cal Hayes Jr. swiped 45 in 2001.
Blackwelder, a rising senior at East, was a .290 hitter with 10 RBIs during the high school season and was second team all-county, but he’s batting .386 as Rowan County’s leadoff man with 85 hits, 23 doubles and 62 runs scored. Those 85 hits are the fourth-highest total ever by a Rowan County player. Trey Holmes set the program record with 96 during the World Series run of 2009.
File, a .183 hitter as a senior second baseman at East, has batted .260 for Rowan and has been a fine No. 9 hitter. He had seven RBIs in the high school season. He has 25 RBIs this summer. Quite a few have come in clutch situations.
Shepherd, a lefty-swinging homeschooler who signed with Catawba, is high on the all-time RBIs list with 64 this summer. Shepherd’s six homers lead the team — by a lot — and he has 26 doubles, tied for second on Rowan’s all-time list.
Ketchie (9-2), a West Rowan graduate headed to Catawba, enters the tournament with a chance to become Rowan’s first 10-game winner since Forrest Buchanan in 2009.
Owen, a rising senior at East who was state tournament MVP, is 6-1 and has won his last six decisions.
All of them are still playing this deep in the summer for a couple of reasons.
First, there’s Gantt. Second, there’s a dedicated coaching staff that includes West Rowan High head coach Seth Graham and two of Gantt’s Catawba players — center fielder Luke Setzer and pitcher Russ Weiker. Third, there was the challenging regular season schedule that AD Mark Cauble put together. That schedule prepared Rowan well for the regional and state tournaments.
And finally, Legion ball is still very important in Rowan County players, more important than it is in a lot of places. At the end of the summer, with another school year beckoning, some of their opponents probably were ready to move on to other things.
But Rowan’s players wanted to keep playing baseball together.
And here they are — ready for the experience of a lifetime in Shelby. Shelby is only 83 miles from Salisbury. Compared to Rowan’s previous World Series trips to Minnesota, Oregon and North Dakota, these will be home games.
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NOTES: After winning the regional in Asheboro on Sunday, Rowan had Monday “to get their ducks in a row,” according to Gantt, and the team will head to Shelby today. … The format is pool play, with the top two teams from a pair of four-team pools advancing to the semifinals. Rowan’s first three games in the “Stripes” pool are set. Rowan plays Omaha, Neb., on Friday at 4 p.m. and is off Saturday. Rowan plays Kennewick, Wash., at 1 p.m. on Sunday. … Owen, who pitched the first game of the state and regional tournaments, will start Game 1 on Thursday, with Ketchie well-rested for Friday, and lefty Brandon White (7-1), a North Rowan graduate headed to Belmont Abbey, the probable pitcher for Sunday. … The Walton family will have an interesting week, with Brandon in the Legion World Series and his sister, Taylor, pitching for Rowan County Little League in the 12U softball World Series in Oregon. … Rowan also has an interesting Setzer combination, with Luke coaching and his brother, Hayden, a rising junior at East, on the pitching staff.

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