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Prep Baseball: West home for third round

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan’s Falcons and the Rockets of Asheville’s A.C. Reynolds High have something in common heading into tonight’s third-round 3A baseball state playoff game.

Both have team ERAs of 1.53.

It doesn’t take rocket science — pun intended — to figure out this likely is going to be a 1-0 or 2-1 type of game. It’s going to be difficult to score runs, as both teams will send their respective aces to the mound. Making things even more interesting, those No. 1 hurlers are future teammates at the University of North Carolina.

West Rowan senior right-hander Austin Love has pitched this season the way you’d expect a UNC signee to pitch. He’s 6-2 with an ERA of 0.85. He’s struck out 63 in 49 1/3 innings, while walking 16. Love has won his last five decisions since he got off to a 1-2 start with hard-luck, one-run losses to South Rowan and Carson.

Love struck out seven in a complete-game victory against Gastonia Forestview in the first round of the playoffs. While his season strikeout numbers aren’t staggering, Love has pitched smart. With the new pitch-count rules, being efficient and getting some early-contact outs is critical to still being around at the end of the game.

A.C. Reynolds junior right-hander Josh Dotson throws 85-87 mph with strong secondary pitches and has verbally committed to UNC. He’s 6-1 as far as his stature, and he’s also 6-1 as far as his record for the season.

Dotson’s ERA is 1.14 and he has 69 strikeouts and 11 walks in 49 innings. Dotson’s season has been remarkably similar to Love’s. His lone loss came in early March against 4A powerhouse T.C. Roberson. He’s won his last five decisions, including a 2-1 struggle against South Piedmont Conference team Central Cabarrus in the first round. Dotson allowed four hits and one walk in that game, while striking out five.

Love and Dotson also are solid hitters. One of them may have to strike the blow that decides this game.

First pitch in Mount Ulla is set for 7 p.m. A.C. Reynolds (17-6) is seeded fifth in the 3A West bracket and will be making its first road trip in the playoffs. The Rockets finished second in the Mountain Athletic Conference, a mixed 3A/4A league that also includes T.C. Roberson. A.C. Reynolds was the league’s top 3A team and went 9-3 in conference play. Coach Bryan Craig heads a strong program. The Rockets reached the third round last season. A.C. Reynolds started the season 1-3, so the Rockets are 16-3 since then.

West Rowan (20-6) is seeded fourth in the 3A West. This has been a special group of Falcons, the first in school history to take a third-straight conference title as well as the first in school history to achieve 20 wins for three straight seasons. West went 14-4 in the dog-eat-dog SPC. Coach Seth Graham has been the coach for those three successful seasons, and West is 62-19 on his watch. West started this season 4-3, so the Falcons are 16-3 since mid-March.

A.C. Reynolds’ scariest offensive threat has been senior third baseman Chris Banks. He has a .452 batting average and 21 RBIs. Banks (5-2, 1.57 ERA) also is a dandy No. 2 pitcher. He threw a two-hitter when the Rockets roughed up Weddington, 8-1, in the second round. A.C. Reynolds scored seven runs in the first inning of that one and breezed into tonight’s matchup.

The catalyst for the A.C. Reynolds offense is junior Andrew McKay, who plays several positions. He’s batting .408 with 19 runs scored and 16 stolen bases.

The anchor for West Rowan’s offense and defense has been slugging catcher Trevor Atwood. The Catawba signee is batting .368 with 10 doubles, two homers and 23 RBIs. Love has 20 RBIs. Shortstop Brett Graham, a Belmont Abbey signee, gets on base and has scored 26 runs. Versatile infielder Brandon Walton, who is headed to Mars Hill, is batting .345 with 15 RBIs.

Lately, West has uncovered another offensive weapon in Catawba-bound senior Pearce Wilhelm. While he’s batting a modest .264, Wilhelm has driven in 17 runs. He had two hits and one RBI in the playoff win against Forestview and he knocked in the only run of the game in the Falcons’ 1-0 victory against Pisgah in the second round. That was the game in which West’s Olen Stamper threw a no-hitter.

West exited the playoffs in the first round last season but made it to Round 4 in 2015.

The winner of tonight’s game will take on the victor of the game between seventh-seeded Crest and top-seeded Ledford. If West wins tonight, the Falcons would host Crest or travel to rural Davidson County to take on Ledford. The fourth round is scheduled for Friday.

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