Legion Baseball: Rowan’s Owen has been ‘all-in’ for 4 years

Published 11:48 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2018

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Long after Rowan County American Legion home games have concluded, pitching coach Russ Weiker works on the mound at Newman Park, and then he toils on the bullpen mounds.

The guy helping him out is John Owen, a player who has been part of the Rowan Legion program for four seasons. This is volunteer stuff for Owen, whose two main jobs are ace pitcher and regular third baseman, but Legion baseball means a lot to him, and he helps out in little ways as well as more obvious ways.

“John Owen is all-in,” Rowan head coach Jim Gantt said. “He makes such a difference for our team, and I’m not just talking about the games he’s won. There just aren’t many people as dedicated as he is. He’s out here playing Legion baseball for all the right reasons —  for his team, for his community, for the veterans, for his family. The last thing John is thinking about is himself.”

Owen’s career at East Rowan High was close to legendary, but it started quietly. As a sophomore in 2015, he was the Mustangs’ catcher, and a pretty good one. He didn’t throw a pitch that season. Coach Brian Hightower knew Owen could handle himself on the mound,  but he needed him behind the plate a lot more than he needed him to pitch, so Owen caught.

That summer he served as Rowan County Legion’s backup catcher, although Dustin Ritchie was good and three years older and played just about every night. But Owen kept throwing bullpens, and one night Gantt sent him to the mound in a close game against Lexington. That’s the first time Legion fans found out Owen could pitch. He got his first save.

Gantt trusted him more and more as that long summer wore on. He won against High Point in the Area III championship series.

In the state tournament, he got the last five outs to finish a victory against Wilson. Then he earned a win against  Hope Mills. He finished that season, 3-0.

Stardom arrived for the unassuming Owen his last two seasons of high school baseball in 2016 and 2017. He swung the bat with authority and he went 15-3 on the mound. He twice was a winner of the Patrick Snider Memorial Award that goes to the Rowan County Pitcher of the Year, and the competition for that award — Owen White (who shared the 2017 award with Owen), Austin Love, Walker Joyce — was as fierce as it’s ever been.

In the summer of 2016, a World Series summer, Owen was marvelous for Rowan. His 6-2 record told just part of the story. He shut down a powerful High Point team for eight innings in the Area III championship series.

In the state tournament, he beat perennial beast Wilmington before he pitched into the ninth inning of the epic game with Union County that decided that tournament. He didn’t get a decision against Union County, but he did get the tourney MVP award.

Then Rowan cruised to a win over Tennessee behind Owen in the Southeast Regional.

In the pressure-cooker World Series, Owen started the first game and the last one for Rowan. The record book shows he was 0-1 with a no-decision, but he gave Rowan a chance in both of his starts. He hurled seven innings in the loss to Indiana. In the 12-inning loss to Arkansas in the final, he carried a heavy load for Rowan for eight innings.

“After pitching in the World Series, I don’t think there’s any situation I can ever face  that will make me nervous,” Owen said. “I can push pressure to the back and concentrate on  doing the job.”

Owen came into the summer of 2017 worn down and with some arm tenderness. He was 2-0 with two saves. He wasn’t lucky. His two best performances were no-decisions. He stopped Randolph County for seven innings in the Area III championship series and took Rowan to the sixth inning in the state tournament against Cherryville, a game that Rowan eventually won to give Gantt his 500th career victory.

Owen headed to Pitt Community College in Greenville last fall for one reason only. His dream is to pitch Division I baseball, and he hopes that two years at Pitt will be a stepping stone for that. He did fine at Pitt as a freshman. He went 6-1.

“I got really good coaching there, and I was used in both starting and relief roles, and that should help my career as it moves forward,” Owen said. “The biggest changes for me at Pitt weren’t baseball changes, they came off the field. I’m about 10,000 times more mature after a year of living in an apartment, being on my own.  I found out a lot about who I am and what I’m capable of doing. It’s carried over to this summer. As far as Legion ball, this is the first time I’ve really felt like I was a team leader. Guys ask me a lot of questions, probably because I’ve been around the longest.”

Owen had a decision to make in May. He could’ve pitched in one of the collegiate wood bat leagues, probably one of the closer ones at High Point or Asheboro, but he elected to return to Newman Park.

“I was looking over the rosters in the (wood bat) Coastal Plain League, and a lot of them were looking pretty stacked,” Owen said. “I didn’t know how many opportunities I’d get to pitch. I felt the best thing for me as far as improving my game this summer would be to play another season of Legion ball for Coach Gantt. It’s been a nice bonus to play in the field as much as I have when I’m not pitching. Hitting, fielding, running the bases, it’s all a lot of fun. I wouldn’t have that chance in a wood bat league.”

Family was also a consideration. It’s one last opportunity for his family to see him play close by. It’s an opportunity for his uncle, Albert Morgan, who can’t get to the games, to listen to all of them on WSAT.

Morgan was the regular first baseman for the 1982 Rowan Legion team that went 30-10 and played until the end of July before losing Game 7 of the Area III championship series to Asheboro. Owen is proud of that family tie.

Owen has enjoyed a remarkable final summer for Rowan. Besides his 6-1 mound record, he’s delivered clutch hits and made sparkling plays at third base.

“He could have a lot more than six wins, but we took him out of several games early,” Gantt said. “He works hard at baseball every day. He’s just a good player and he gives us everything he has.”

Owen is now 17-3 for his Legion career. He’s 4-0 in Area III playoff games, 2-0 in state tournaments and 1-0 in Southeast Regionals. He’s lost only twice in regular season outings —  to High Point early in 2016 and to Kannapolis this year when Post 115 scored five unearned runs in the first inning. The only other loss came in the 2016 World Series.

He’s not imposing at 5-foot-10 and about 170 pounds. He doesn’t scare anyone. He’s just gotten people out for a long time. He throws a high percentage of fastballs, but he has more velocity than you’d expect from someone with his frame and his location is pinpoint. He can throw his curveball for a strike when he needs to, and he’ll mix in a changeup when hitters try to sit on the fastball. In other words, he’s a pitcher, not a thrower, and he’s one of the most effective ones Rowan has had in this generation.

He says “it’s a great honor” to be moving up the storied program’s career wins list. Only 17 players have won more games than Owen. His 18th would tie him with two standouts from the 1990s — Sandy Moore and Russell Holshouser.

When you total up Owen’s high school, Legion and junior college records together, he’s 38-7, so he’s doing something right.

“I think what I do best is not show emotion on the mound,” Owen said. “I’m pretty calm out there. I usually can stay under control.”

Rowan is 25-6 and a No, 1 seed, better than anyone expected, and opens a best-of-five series tonight at Newman Park against High Point (16-6).

Needless to say, a well-rested Owen will be on the mound tonight. He’s started Rowan openers in state tournaments, regional tournaments and the World Series, so this will just one more big moment for him. He’s 2-1 in his career against High Point.

Gantt said lefties Maddux Holshouser and Daniel Durham are the probable starters for Games 2 and 3, although that plan is subject to change if they end up being needed out of the bullpen. Gantt said Hayden Setzer, another lefty,  and a key starter most of the season, “could factor in.”

Games 1 and 2 will be played at Newman Park due to a field conflict at Finch Field on Friday. Game 3 will be at Finch Field at 6 p.m., with Game 4, if needed, played there as well. If there’s a Game 5 it will be back at Newman Park.