College baseball: Catawba heads to Florida to open season

Published 12:01 am Sunday, January 30, 2022

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Catawba’s baseball team will board a bus and leave the new, improved Newman Park on Monday at 9 a.m..

The Indians will head south to balmy Florida for their first four games of a new season.

For Catawba’s Jim Gantt, 2022 is season No. 26 as head coach.

This annual trip to the sunshine will feel strange for him, as long-time assistant coach Michael Lowman, D-II Assistant of the Year, is no longer on board. Neither are Hunter Shepherd, who anchored Catawba’s offense for years, and Bryan Ketchie, who anchored several Catawba pitching staffs. Shepherd and Ketchie, local products, were All-Americans last spring.

Jeremy Simpson and Lee Poteat are still in uniform, but they’re assistant coaches now, not players.

For the first time in many years  Catawba isn’t picked to win the South Atlantic Conference. Catawba came in second in the preseason voting by SAC coaches, partly because mainstays like Shepherd and Ketchie are gone, but mostly because Wingate is the defending national champion. It’s impressive, a nod to how consistently stout the Catawba baseball program has been, that three SAC coaches still picked Catawba to finish first in the league.

“I don’t mind someone else (Wingate) wearing the bull’s-eye for a change,” Gantt said with a laugh. “No pressure on us.”

Gantt is upbeat about this season.

He’s a traditionalist as much as anyone, but he acknowledges that the renovations at Newman Park were needed and they have turned out better than he dreamed.

“People think artificial surface, and they think that baseball is going to be bouncing around like a Superball,” Gantt said. “That’s not the case. It’s amazing how true a baseball plays on this infield.”

The outfield will play differently. It’s 370 feet to center field now instead of the familiar 360. It’s 345 to left and 341 to right. There’s more room to cover in the alleys.

The first phase of the renovation project is being completed on time. Besides the new field, the new dugouts are a massive improvement. Tall Indians no longer have to worry about bumping their heads and they now can visit the restroom without sprinting up the steps into the crowd. New lighting will be in place when the Indians open their home schedule with a noon doubleheader on Feb. 12.

Who’s going to be playing for Catawba this year? That’s the million-dollar question.

The roster makeover is significant. The lineup won’t have Bryce Butler, Cameron Morrison, Shepherd, Poteat and Simpson, but it should still be one of the best in the league.

As far as the pitching, Ketchie was a monster last season (10-1, 1.82 ERA), but Catawba can rebuild a staff around dependable starter Greg Brown and closer Robbie Cowie.

“We lost some guys that aren’t really replaceable,” Gantt said. “But you put another name on the lineup card and move on.”

Catawba had a whopping 56 players on the roster last season, partly due to fifth-year COVID returners.

The number now is a more manageable 45. Thirty-nine will likely make the first road trip, with some Indians planning to redshirt. One of those likely redshirts is Blake Marsh, a Randolph County American Legion phenom whom Gantt views as a potential future star.

Gantt said the Indians anticipate graduating 15 this spring and thet expect to bring in eight recruits, so that will reduce the roster numbers some more. Local recruits for next season include West Rowan pitcher Casey Gouge, South Rowan infielder Ty Hubbard and Carson graduates Logan Rogers, Cole Hales and Chase Drinkard, who will be playing junior college ball this season.

Returning for the Indians are left fielder Luke Spiva (7 homers, 26 RBIs, .333), second baseman Joe Butts (.353, 35 runs, 31 RBIs), DH Dylan Wilkinson (3 homers, 23 RBIs, .333) and Zack Miller (6 homers, 21 RBIs, .297), who shared catching duties with Morrison. Cameron Mills (.345, 26 RBIs) played third base last season because that’s where there was an opening in the lineup, but the plan is to shift Mills to center field this year to replace Butler.

The Randolph County Legion program has become almost as important as the Rowan County Legion program to Catawba. Two Randolph players will start on opening day. Harris Jackson won the third base job with a great fall, while Dawson Painter, who has been shining at Louisburg, is expected to be the new right fielder.

Carlos Lara, a transfer who played previously at Palm Beach Atlantic, is the likely starter at first base.

Levi Perrell steps in to the shortstop position that Simpson handled long and well.

Former North Rowan standout Henderson Lentz and Trenton Walsh are experienced, lefty-swinging outfielders. They’ll get at-bats.

Dylan Driver, a freshman from Carson, has been impressive. Painter will likely be one of Catawba’s key relievers. Driver would be the guy who replaces him in right field when Painter takes the mound.

“Dylan is still a potential pitcher and is throwing bullpens, but he might be our best defensive outfielder,” Gantt said. “He had an intraquad game where he hit a home run and made a diving catch.”

Zeb Burns, another Carson product, has speed and versatility. He could get some time at third base, shortstop or in the outfield.

Braxton Davis, another Randolph County product, is exceptional defensively and is in the mix at first base.

Jackson Finger could be a factor in the middle infield. Jackson Mitchell could play some in the outfield.

Aaron Williams, the former Davie standout, will get his first chance to play. He figures to be the No. 2 catcher behind Miller. Veteran catcher Lyle Pfingst returns from Tommy John surgery.

A name to keep in mind is Marshall Raper, the brother of former Catawba star Jackson Raper. The younger Raper is a catcher/pitcher with a big arm.

Lefty Colby Hammer could help as a pitcher or hitter.

Brown (4-2, 3.33 ERA, 50 strikeouts) will be counted on to be the staff ace. Maddux Holshouser, the former Carson pitcher who began his college career at UNC Greensboro, went 2-0 last season and is penciled in as the No. 2 starter. Ben Gilks, back from an injury, and Adam Dossenback, who came to Catawba from Guilford Tech, are next in the rotation.

Freshman Michael Gracer was untouchable in intrasquad games in the fall and has a bright future.

Drew Robertson, Kenny Dollenger, Trent Montgomery, Connor Garcia, Ross Fowler, former Carson Cougar Ryan Street, N., C. Central transfer Gavyn ByrdCharlotte transfer Mason Gywn and Bryan Kowalski, a grad student who pitched at Pfeiffer, give Catawba a lot of mound options, and there are more candidates behind them.

Cowie will again be one of the key members of the staff. He had eight saves in 15 appearances in 2021.

“He pitched 20 innings last season and you’d like for one of the league’s best pitchers to throw more than 20, and we’ve talked to him about that,” Gantt said. “But he really likes closing and prefers closing, and it’s not easy to find guys with that closing mentality.”

So Cowie will take the ball at the end of games and protect leads. Gantt might bring him in as early as the seventh, if it’s a critical game.

Assisting Gantt in addition to Simpson and Poteat are Curtis Owen, who was a head coach at D-III William Peace, former North Rowan standout and Carson coach Brett Mulkey and volunteers  Bobby Parnell and Joe Burgess.

Butts, Mills, Miller, Cowie and Brown are on the All-SAC preseason teams, so it’s not like the cupboard is bare.

“I’m not saying we’re going to be world-beaters, but I think we’ll be OK,” Gantt said. “We’ve got good depth and we’ve got some options. We can pinch-run and pinch-hit and we’ve got quality defensive replacements. That should help us win some tight games.”



Coach Jim Gantt: 26th season as head coach

2021: 33-11 overall, 24-6 SAC, 19-2 at Newman Park

Key losses: Hunter Shepherd, Bryan Ketchie, Lee Poteat, Jeremy Simpson, Bryce Butler, Cameron Morrison

Key returners: Second baseman Joe Butts, left fielder Luke Spiva, starting pitchers Greg Brown and Maddux Holshouser, closer Robbie Cowie, center fielder Cameron Mills, catcher Zack Miller

New faces: Right fielder Dawson Painter, third baseman Harris Jackson, first baseman Carlos Lara, shortstop Levi Perrell