Legion Baseball: Rowan’s Poteat player of the year for Area III
By Mike London
SALISBURY — The first mention of Lee Poteat in the Post’s Rowan County American Legion baseball preview last May came in about the 12th paragraph.
Something along the lines of “and also back with the Legion team is West Rowan right fielder Lee Poteat.”
But a lot has changed for Poteat since May.
Last Friday, the St. Andrews University freshman found out he was the Area III Player of the Year for 2016. He’ll receive that award on March 5 at the annual N.C. American Legion Hall of Fame banquet to be held in Salisbury.
“My mother (Leslie) drove down to pick me up at St. Andrews on Friday and she brought along mail that had come to the house for me,” Poteat said. “I opened up a letter from the American Legion, and there it was. They were congratulating me for being player of the year. It was a shock, but it was a good shock. Usually I sleep on the way home, but not this time. I was smiling too big to sleep.”
Poteat’s mother got a kick out of watching her son read the short letter, and then read it again — and then read it again.
“He was stunned and very surprised, to say the least,” Leslie said. “It was fun to watch his reaction and then watch him re-read the letter a couple of times on the drive home. He must have held it in his hands for 20 minutes before he put it back in the envelope.”
While Lee Poteat was stunned, Rowan County coach Jim Gantt was the opposite of stunned.
“Well, he should be the player of the year,” Gantt said. “When we sent in the nomination, we felt like he had a great chance, especially considering how far our team went.”
Last season didn’t end for Rowan County until Aug. 17. It ended with an 8-6 loss in the World Series championship game in Shelby. Poteat was all-tournament in that World Series, along with teammates Juan Garcia, Tanner File, Hunter Shepherd and Sawyer Strickland.
In the summer of 2015, Poteat contributed to what would be the first of Rowan’s back-to-back state titles. He batted a modest .277 with 17 RBIs. His main role was playing left field on the nights when first-string left fielder Riley Myers started on the mound.
“The thing I remember most about Lee in that 2015 season didn’t have anything to do with hitting,” Gantt said. “He made a catch backed up against the wall in the state championship game.”
Poteat’s high school season at West Rowan in the spring of 2016 offered few hints of what was to come.
He could run, he could throw, and he was utterly fearless when it came to smashing into walls — but he also batted .223.
But that cold bat came to life in Legion ball for a tough athlete who competed at West in football, wrestling and track, as well as baseball. His summer of 2016 became a perfect storm of better weather and better luck. He smoked fastballs and stayed back on breaking balls. His grounders found holes. His line drives no longer flew right at people. And then his line drives started banging off walls.
“They say it can take a long time to become an overnight success,” Gantt said with chuckle. “The thing with Lee is that he always wanted to be good and he always did all the extra work. He’s an athlete with a a lot of ability, and he’s always had the right mentality. He’s wanted to do well, not because it would be good for Lee, but because it would help our team. That’s a refreshing attitude.”
While Gantt always has liked Poteat as a person, he wasn’t expecting him to suddenly become Kris Bryant.
“If I knew he could play like that, I’d have recruited him a lot harder for Catawba,” Gantt said.
Poteat’s season ranked among the best in Rowan’s storied history. He batted .426 with 52 RBIs and 61 runs scored. He stole 36 bases and he played a dynamic right field. It seemed like he made a diving catch or threw a runner out at the plate every night at Newman Park. Sometimes he did both.
“I still don’t think it’s set in all the way yet as far as how far we went last year and how well we all did,” Poteat said.
Most of the 2016 Rowan team was reunited recently, riding in the Christmas parade, and then gathering after the festivities at Wink’s restaurant for a meal.
Seventeen of the 18 players made it. File, a second baseman who has joined the work force, missed it. He couldn’t get away from his job at Food Lion.
“It wasn’t really a banquet, just a dinner, but it was great to see them all together again and having a big time,” Gantt said. “The last time they were together was that last World Series game, and that was such a sad moment. Then they had to scatter the next day to a lot of different schools.”
At Wink’s, team manager Mark Cauble and athletic director Voight Basinger handed out $8,000 in scholarships to the players in college. As a two-year member of the Legion team, Poteat was awarded $1,000.
“The guys made it a fun season for the fans and by playing so many games they helped the Legion raise money,” Gantt said. “It’s good that some of that money gets back to the players to help with their education. This season was a great two-way street.”
The team also will get rings. They’ll be receiving regional champion rings rather World Series runner-up rings.
“You want that ring to remind you of a game that you won,” Cauble explained.
As far as Poteat, he’s determined that his torrid summer of 2016 isn’t going to be the peak of his career.
Things went well for him in fall baseball at St. Andrews, located in Laurinburg, 100 miles from Salisbury.
St. Andrews brought in a host of potential players, but Poteat will be hard to keep off the field. He estimated he batted over .500 in intrasquad games.
“The pitching wasn’t as good as what we saw in Legion,” Poteat said. “I was really homesick at St. Andrews the first few weeks, but after baseball started, I didn’t have time to be homesick.”
The best news for Rowan County American Legion fans is that Poteat still will be eligible to play next summer.
Poteat is certain to move up to the first paragraph of the 2017 Legion preview.
With Poteat, a three-peat is possible.