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Legion Baseball: Rowan County outlook for 2018

American Legion baseball returns on Sunday

JON C. LAKEY FILE PHOTO/ SALISBURY POST …
He’s back: Rowan County pitcher John Owen, shown going against High Point last July, returns to the Legion team after his freshman year at Pitt County Community College.

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY—  Coach Jim Gantt is about to enter his 18th season as Rowan County American Legion head coach with a legendary record (501-181) that includes a 43-2 powerhouse in 2000 and a 41-win national runner-up team in 2016.

Newman Park still stands as the home of the local Legion team, a silent link that binds that first Salisbury Legion team way back in 1936 to the current crop of players.  There’s all kinds of tradition out there. Players still will stand hand-over-heart  for the national anthem before the game and will sit in the bleachers and chat with girlfriends and consume hot dogs after the game. Those rituals haven’t changed much over time.

While the players don’t change all that much, where they come from does change. There were years when Salisbury High players dominated Legion ball. For a long time, East Rowan took over. There have been summers when North Rowan and West Rowan players filled the roster. This season, Rowan will be heavily reliant on Carson’s powerhouse team for the first time.

The rules have changed drastically. Legion ball  will look a lot like high school ball this year. Games will be just seven innings instead of nine, although there won’t be any mercy-rule games. Fans will get to see seven innings — even if the score is 27-1.

“That’s not a change because of the pace of play and because games got too long,” Gantt said. “That change came about because so many teams say they don’t have enough pitchers to play nine innings.”

Other tweaks that Gantt despises are courtesy runners for pitchers and catchers and re-entry options for the starters who have left the game. That’s high school stuff, but now it’s also part of Legion.

“It’s just  awful,” Gantt said. “It’s like we’re not even playing baseball anymore.”

Still, a  new season begins Sunday at Newman Park when Greensboro visits, and Gantt is hurriedly trying to match new names with new faces.

“There’s a kid from West Rowan that plays third base,” Gantt said. “I’m sorry. That’s all I know. I haven’t learned all of them yet.”

Showcase ball slices into Rowan’s roster as it does everyone else’s. Some of the county’s better players will spend their summer on the showcase circuit, but Gantt has learned to accept that.

“The first sign-up sheet they handed me we only had 16 guys,” Gantt said. “But we’ve had a few more show up since then. I’m still figuring out exactly what we’ve got.”

Gantt said Carson star Owen White, a perennial showcase player, signed up, and obviously he’ll be thrilled to have White even it’s only for a short period of time. Carson, which has won 24 games, is still playing and will be in the fourth round of the 3A state playoffs at Crest on Friday. In a few weeks, White is going to be drafted by MLB and he’s going to be drafted early. Even if he doesn’t sign with a big league team, at some point he’ll be leaving for summer school at South Carolina.

Carson’s No. 2 hurler Maddux Holshouser, a UNC Greensboro-bound lefty who has been a stud for the Cougars this spring, has signed up. He’s been a showcase guy in the past. He’ll be a difference-maker.

Gantt also mentioned Carson’s slugging left fielder Luke Barringer and athletic right fielder Clayton Gilmore. They signed up, along with Garrett Alewine. Alewine is a decent hitter, but he’ll make his biggest impact as a quality defensive catcher. He’s handled White’s great stuff the last two seasons.

East Rowan infielders Bryson Wagner and Matthew Mathis signed up. Gantt said East’s slugging young outfielder Wayne Mize, who was a terror this spring with seven homers and 39 RBIs, signed up, but he may be on the shelf for 10 days or so with a hip issue.

“Mize is a lot bigger than I thought he was and he’s a better outfielder than I thought,” Gantt said. “But we need to get him healthy. We’d rather for him to miss 10 days at the start of the season, then miss the last 10 days.”

East’s star Hayden Setzer, will be on hand, of course. Setzer is a two-way monster, a 6-foot-3 lefty hurler with heat and a powerful, patient hitter. The Catawba signee runs well and can handle center field  (or first base) when he’s not pitching.

Slugging first baseman Chander Lippard will be the key Legion contributor from a 17-11 Salisbury team.

Olen Stamper, who gave West Rowan a chance whenever he pitched this season, is likely to be the most impactful Falcon on the Legion squad. JT Fecteau, a promising young catcher from West, probably will play Junior Legion this summer.

Rowan should get a major boost on the mound from John Owen, a veteran of Gantt’s Legion teams from 2015-17. Owen went 6-0 as a Pitt Community College freshman and has signed up. Owen was also a pretty fair hitter in his high school days at East and might see action in the infield.

A White-Setzer-Owen-Holshouser pitching rotation would be a dream for Gantt — he wouldn’t need much of a bullpen in seven-inning games — but only time will tell if that intriguing possibility becomes reality.

Surprisingly, Gantt expects to have the services of veteran catcher Trevor Atwood, a West Rowan grad who delivered huge hits for the Legion team the last two seasons. Atwood was on the Catawba team coached by Gantt this spring, and college players, by rule, can’t play for their college coach in the summer. But Gantt said Atwood has withdrawn from Catawba and will be eligible to play for the Legion squad.

Gantt said there are some other players out for the team, and he’ll have all a firm grip on them all in the next few days.

Gantt will miss some early games. His daughter has important school functions coming up and he’ll also be gone four or five days when the Division II World Series cranks up in Cary. Catawba won’t be in it this year, but Gantt is on the  D-II All-America committee and that will take him away from Salisbury.

West Rowan head coach Seth Graham will again be Gantt’s right-hand man and will manage the team when he’s absent. Former Catawba star Russ Weiker will serve as pitching coach. Adam Patterson, a star catcher for West and Rowan Legion in the mid-1990s, is also on the staff this season.

Rowan has been really tough the last three seasons — 106-26 — and that trend could continue.

This summer’s state tournament will be held at Finch Field from July 26-30.

The last time High Point Post 87  hosted the state tournament was 2006, when Morehead City captured the title. That was quite a tournament, featuring numerous future big leaguers. Morehead City’s Lonnie Chisenhall and Caldwell County’s Madison Bumgarner smashed four homers apiece. Kyle Seager had six hits and five RBIs in four games for Kannapolis.

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