American Legion baseball: Rowan advances, but not the way anyone wanted it

Published 12:01 am Sunday, July 17, 2022

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Rowan County American Legion coach Jim Gantt talked with some confidence on Friday evening about being able to outlast Eastern Randolph in a best-of-five series, but at the same time he knew it wouldn’t be easy.

He knew it wouldn’t be a sweep. He knew there might be some 12-11 games, and he likes 3-2 in two hours a lot better than 12-11 in three and a half.

Eastern Randolph boasted a scary offense — Post 81 produced 26 runs in 12 innings in Thursday’s doubleheader in Ramseur that eliminated Stanly County — and Rowan was going to have a young guy coming back from some shoulder soreness — Alex Hagler — starting on the mound in front of a big Saturday night crowd at Newman Park.

More young guys who might have stomachs churning with butterflies were being counted on in relief behind Hagler. Gantt was hoping for three, maybe four innings from Hagler.

Casey Gouge, who threw another gem Tuesday against Mocksville, would have been eligible to pitch for Rowan today in Game 2 in Ramseur, but Gantt knew if Gouge somehow lost for the first time this summer, if things somehow went sideways in that one, then Rowan was in serious trouble in the series.

But that’s all water under the bridge now. Hagler will get to rest some more. So will Gouge and Jake Blevins, who have carried Rowan’s mix-and-match staff this summer. So will Gantt and the coaching staff.

Eastern Randolph forfeited the entire series Friday night. It was shocking news, as the once powerful program had made a nice comeback this summer, posting a 17-10 record (before the forfeits) and had challenged Randolph County for first place in the Northern Division all season.

Eastern Randolph was back in the Area III semifinals for the first time since 2015, three wins away from the state tournament.

So what happened between the euphoria of  winning a wild series on Thursday and getting ready to visit Rowan on Saturday?

Vacations played a big role in it. Eastern Randolph suddenly didn’t have enough players in town.

Eastern Randolph was down to eight on the official roster who could have made Saturday’s trip to Newman Park.

The Legion rulebook requires a minimum of 12 players in uniform.

“The scenario is unfortunate, but we had no other choice but to make this decision,” ER’s first-year coach Nate Cockman told Sports Tone, which covers Randolph sports online.  “The main factor in this decision was losing some of our players earlier this season due to unfortunate circumstances, and then we were short-handed.”

Bringing up four players from the Junior Legion team would have allowed Eastern Randolph to play the games, but there wasn’t much point.

They weren’t on the final Senior roster, so they still would’ve had to forfeit.

Rowan fans expressed disappointment on Saturday morning and afternoon. They’d looked forward to a competitive series and had looked forward to cheering for a very hot Rowan team.

The good news is that Rowan County, which began this season looking like an underdog against just about everyone, is now assured of one of the two Area III berths in the state tournament. That event will be played at Campbell on July 26-30.

Add three forfeits to the record book and Rowan is now 33-7.

Rowan, which had a first-round bye in the playoffs before sweeping Mocksville in the quarterfinals, had won 15 straight on the field before the forfeits were added to the ledger.

The only Area III semifinal games that will be contested will be in the Kannapolis-Randolph County series.

Northern Division champion Randolph County is hosting the first two games of that series at McCrary Park on Saturday and today. Kannapolis, runner-up in the Southern Division to Rowan County, will host Game 3 and Game 4, if needed, at Northwest Cabarrus High. If a fifth game is necessary, it will be hosted by Randolph County.

Kannapolis has lost some players from its peak earlier this summer, but Post 115  is still a formidable team, anchored by former South Rowan infielder and Catawba signee Ty Hubbard.

Rowan County will play the winner of the Randolph-Kannapolis series on July 22 for the Area III championship.  That single game will determine the seeds for the state tournament.