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Legion baseball: Rowan prepared for semifinals

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Rowan County’s American Legion team dropped playoff series to High Point in 2011, 2012 — and even in 2016 — so there’s a lot of anticipation and maybe a little trepidation as Rowan County gears up for another meeting with High Point Post 87 in one of the Area III semifinals.

Game 1 of the best-of-five series is scheduled for tonight at 7 p.m. at Newman Park. This is the critical round of the Area III playoffs, as both semifinal winners will qualify for the state tournament in Greenville.

“High Point is talented, just always very talented, they do a good job of getting their talent out there,” Rowan coach Jim Gantt said. “They run a solid program, they’ve got good coaching (Trinity High’s Rob Shore), and they’ve got some veteran players. It should be a fun series for fans.”

Rowan County (27-1) has played “arena baseball” this summer, knocking down the walls at Newman Park. For fans of offense, it’s been exciting to watch. For fans of tight, tense ballgames, not so much.

Ranked No. 1 in the state by NCPiedmontSports.com, Rowan has averaged 11.1 runs per game and has picked up the pace recently. In six of its last eight games, Rowan has scored 15 or more runs. Rowan won its first 18 games, lost one to Texarkana, Arkansas, last year’s national champ, and then started a new winning streak that now has reached nine games.

Rowan still has some of the same people from the team that finished as 2016 national runner-up. Slugger/speedster Lee Poteat, reigning Area III Player of the Year, still mans right field and bats third. Leadoff man Chandler Blackwelder, who walloped three homers in a game last week  against Winston-Salem — he’s the first to accomplish that feat for Rowan during Gantt’s 17-year coaching tenure — is still in center field. Tanner File, who had a four-hit game in the Winston series, is still at second base. Trevor Atwood is still steady behind the plate offensively and defensively, while Brandon Walton, recovered from a hamstring injury, is the DH (or first baseman) and provides lefty punch in a mostly right-handed lineup.

Rowan doesn’t have the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 starting pitchers from last season’s team, as Hunter Shepherd, Bryan Ketchie and Sawyer Strickland all moved on to play for Gantt at Catawba College.

But Rowan still has last season’s ace, John Owen, in uniform. He’s 2-0 after resting his pitching arm most of the summer as he recovered from soreness and tendinitis.

“We didn’t have John available most of the summer, so our record was a tribute to what our other pitchers were able to do,” Gantt said. “But we do feel very good about having John starting Game 1 against High Point. He’s a No. 1 pitcher.”

On his last trip to the mound, Owen, who is headed to Pitt Community College this fall, pitched seven shutout innings in the first game of the Winston-Salem series, but he got no decision when Winston-Salem rallied late to tie against Rowan’s bullpen.

High Point has seen Owen before — and didn’t necessarily enjoy it. He shut out Post 87 for eight innings last summer in the opening game of the Area III championship series, although High Point came back to beat Ketchie and Shepherd in close games to take the best-of-three series. That High Point triumph faded from the memories of most fans after Rowan prevailed in the state and regional tournaments and moved on to the World Series.

Rowan was scheduled to play High Point during the regular season, but that encounter never took place due to rainouts.

“So we haven’t really seen them at all,” Gantt said.

Gantt, like everyone else, is a little puzzled with the transformation of High Point, which struggled during the regular season but suddenly turned it on in the playoffs. While High Point is only 13-14 for the season and dropped eight of its 12 Northern Division contests during the regular season, it is 5-1 in the playoffs. There was a 19-run explosion against Stanly County in the first round. Then there were three straight impressive wins after a Game 1 setback against highly regarded No. 2 seed Eastern Randolph in the quarterfinals.

“There are a lot of possible factors,” Gantt said. “Maybe High Point got healthier. Maybe they finally got all their guys together after vacations or maybe they had double-participation guys who were doing Legion and showcase before the playoffs. The one thing we do know for sure is that they’re playing their best baseball right now.”

Gantt said Rowan did not play particularly well in its quarterfinal series sweep of Winston-Salem, despite two lopsided victories that followed a Game 1 struggle that could’ve gone either way.

“I’m not saying we played badly, but we definitely didn’t play the way we’ve played most of this summer,” Gantt said. “A lot of the time this summer, we’ve played really well.”

The newcomers in Rowan’s lineup include left fielder and No. 2 hitter Henderson Lentz. Lentz, a Catawba basketball signee, was a .475 hitter for North Rowan High and is playing American Legion ball for the first time. Owen, who didn’t bat last year, has provided a huge offensive boost and surprising power as Rowan’s cleanup hitter and new third baseman. The combination of Brett Graham and Griffin Myers has handled shortstop duties. Chandler Lippard and Hayden Setzer have provided some power in first base/DH roles. Pearce Wilhelm has flourished as a backup catcher/reliever and drove in four runs in the clinching game against Winston-Salem. Brycen Holshouser has been very helpful in a pinch-hitting, pinch-running and outfield defense role. He had the game-winning pinch-hit in Game 1 of the Winston-Salem series.

Olen Stamper is set to start Game 2 of the series for Rowan on Tuesday at High Point’s historic home park — Finch Field. Penciled in to start Game 3 is Setzer, a tall southpaw. If it becomes an extended series, lefty Joe Harrison looms as a potential starting pitcher for Game 4, with Myers a possibility for Game 5. Of course, that’s all subject to change if Setzer, Harrison or Myers are needed in relief in the first two games. Harrison got the biggest out of the Winston-Salem series — a 3-and-2 curveball strikeout with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth in Game 1 — and Gantt really likes what Harrison can do out of the bullpen.

Health-wise, Rowan is back to full strength with Will Brown available as a relief pitcher and reserve outfielder. Brown had a bout with biceps tendinitis because he’s pitched so much more this summer than he did during his high school season at East Rowan. He’s available to help out Brandon White, Noah Gonzalez, Graham and Walton, all veterans of the World Series run, in the bullpen.

The 18-man team includes six players who played high school ball at West Rowan (Atwood, Wilhelm, Graham, Stamper, Walton and Poteat), five from East Rowan (Blackwelder, Owen, Setzer, File and Brown), four from North Rowan (Lentz, Harrison, Gonzalez and White), two from Salisbury (Myers and Lippard) and Carson’s Holshouser.

“We’ve practiced every day since our last game (on Thursday), and they guys seem to be into it and ready to play,” Gantt said.

•••

NOTES: With Owen on the mound tonight, that means Myers will be stationed at shortstop, with Graham sliding over to third base. …High Point got good starting pitching from Zack Lambeth, Charlee Edwards. Jacob Kohns and Rob Sari in its series with Eastern Randolph. Ryan Hopkins had a four-hit game in that series, while Luke Spiva had a five-RBI game. … Gantt said Poteat’s transfer from St. Andrews to Catawba is official. … Rowan County assistant coach Riley Myers, who missed all of Catawba’s season with a back injury, is fully recovered. He’s been throwing wicked batting practice and could be joining a college wood bat team soon. … Catawba will be adding former Marvin Ridge High dynamo Jason Curtis this fall. Curtis has started a lot of games in the infield for Appalachian State the past two seasons, but he’ll likely be a center fielder for the Indians.

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