Legion baseball: Rowan County pieces together another team

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 26, 2022

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Even the hardiest diehard baseball fans in Rowan County won’t recognize more than half the names on the 2022 American Legion roster.

There are more than enough players to field a team, but with only two reporting from Carson and three from East Rowan, fans will be seeing mostly new faces on a squad the coaches have patched together from eight schools.

Yes, eight schools.

Enrollment rules have been tweaked over the years to help Legion programs stay afloat. All six Rowan public schools will be represented on this season’s roster, as well as North Iredell and Gray Stone Day.

Rowan coaches Jim Gantt, Seth Graham, Adam Patterson and Brett Graham are still learning some of the names themselves.

“I’m not sure what all the issues are as far as guys not playing Legion baseball, and if we knew, maybe we could address them,” Gantt said. “But we have fewer guys willing to commit themselves to a summer of baseball now. A lot of guys say they like baseball, but maybe not as many of them love it the way they used to.”

It’s hard to refute the argument that American Legion ball is slowly fading away, even in Rowan County, one of the pillars of the sport in the Carolinas.

The elite, Division-I type players that once thrilled fans every summer were lost to showcase ball years ago. We don’t get to see the Kyle Seagers and Madison Bumgarners anymore.

Now a lot of the very good, good and pretty good players are finding other things to do.

But Legion ball will continue this summer at renovated Newman Park, where a hallowed tradition started in 1936. Those who put on the Rowan County uniform will play for their community and for the veterans as well as for their families, their coaches and for each other.

While the level of Legion play isn’t what it once was, it is still highly competitive because every program is in the same boat. And it is still baseball played with a noble purpose.

Rowan will again compete in the Southern Division of Area III. Davidson County has shifted to the Southern Division, and familiar adversaries Kannapolis, Concord, Mocksville, Stanly County and Mooresville are back for another year.  There’s a new look to the Northern Division of Area III where High Point, Randolph County, Eastern Randolph and Greensboro will compete with Sandy Ridge (Stokes County) and Foothills (Surry County).

Who’s playing for Rowan?

Fortunately, the West Rowan guys came out in force. Seth Graham is West’s head coach, so that’s a factor.

Ten Falcons form the core of the Rowan team. That group includes all four of West’s All-South Piedmont Conference players — lefty pitcher Casey Gouge who also can hit, catcher Matt Connolly, second baseman Luke Graham and outfielder Zander Burton.

West’s No. 2 pitcher Jake Blevins is also out of the team, while Drew Burton and Elijah Palmer had their moments for the Falcons.

Catching is always the biggest concern. You have to have at least two good ones to deal with the packed Legion schedule, combined with the summer heat. Rowan is in good shape there. Connolly is a very good player, as is Carson’s Cameron Burleyson. Both of those guys are exceptional athletes who also played varsity basketball.

Aiden Schenck is the biggest name returning from last summer. The East Rowan slugger will be in the lineup at first base, left field or designated hitter and will provide some left-handed power.

Blake Hill, an East Rowan reserve, also returns and could be the third baseman.

“He’s got tools,” Gantt said. “He just needs confidence, and we’re going to try to build that.”

Luke Graham has impressed Gantt with his bat and glove and will handle second base.

North Iredell product Cole Johnson is the likely shortstop.

Johnson can play. He batted .373 in a killer 3A conference that included East Lincoln, North Lincoln, Fred T. Foard and St. Stephens. Releases were required for him to play for Rowan County. It’s possible that a late bid by Statesville to field a team in Area IV could complicate Johnson’s status, but hopefully, he’s good to go.

Rowan’s program will get a surprise boost from Jackson Deal, a South Rowan graduate who got on the field some for Methodist University as a freshman.

Deal will provide excellent defense in right field and he’s a quick baserunner. Football fans will remember him as South Rowan’s running back. He’s a grandson of the late Larry Deal, who served many years as South Rowan’s head football coach and AD.

Gantt is optimistic that more South Rowan players will play for Rowan in the future.

Rowan already has released South Rowan’s standout second baseman Ty Hubbard, so that he could play for his father, Joe, who coaches the Kannapolis Legion team.

“That’s just something you do because it’s the right thing to do,” Gantt said. “That’s something that had to happen. He’ll get to play for his dad this summer, and then he’ll be at Catawba in the fall.”

Zander Burton is a big stick and will be one of the anchors in the outfield.

North Rowan’s Trey Johnson has speed and could find regular playing time. North’s Malakie Harris has power.

Gantt likes the potential of young players such as Salisbury’s Hank Webb and Gray Stone’s Maverick Walters.

As far as pitching, Gouge, a Catawba signee, figures to be the ace. He was very good two years ago when he played on Rowan’s NC3 team during the COVID summer.

Blevins is a Pfeiffer recruit who will give Rowan County a lot of quality innings.

Casey Crawford, a big left-hander who was a key part of Carson’s staff, is being counted on in the rotation, but you’ll also get to see guys throw who didn’t get to pitch much — or at all — for their high school teams.

“The first day we had 23 come out, and 21 said they pitched,” Gantt said. “We’ve got enough arms to handle the schedule. We just have to figure it all out.”

The new, larger dimensions at renovated Newman Park should help pitchers and hinder hitters.

Gantt has been the head coach since the 2001 season.

Rowan went 16-6 last summer. That season got a late start following the delayed high school season. With Newman Park under construction, Rowan played home games at Staton Field.

Rowan reached the state tournament with an offensive-minded team. Logan Rogers, Charlie Klingler and Dylan Driver, among others, put up huge numbers, but they’ve moved on now.

Rowan is off to  a 2-0 start, after  a sweep of Eastern Randolph. Gouge struck out 10 in the opener. Schenck had a walk-off hit in the nightcap.

Rowan is home against Kannapolis tonight.


Rowan County roster

South Rowan — Jackson Deal (Methodist University)

North Rowan — Trey Johnson, Joseph Hartman, Malakie Harris

West Rowan — Luke Graham, Zach McNeely, Nate Green, Jake Blevins, Drew Burton, Casey Gouge, Matt Connolly, Elijah Palmer, Alex Hagler, Zander Burton

Carson — Cameron Burleyson, Casey Crawford

North Iredell — Cole Johnson

Salisbury — Hank Webb

Gray Stone — Maverick Walters, Gavin Byrd

East Rowan — Blake Hill, Aiden Schenck, McCall Henderson