High school baseball preview: West has good mix of veterans and youth

Published 12:01 am Thursday, February 23, 2023

First in a series of reports on local baseball teams …

By Mike London

MOUNT ULLA — With Carson’s Chris Cauble and South’s Thad Chrismon stepping down — or stepping back — West’s Seth Graham is suddenly the dean of Rowan County high school baseball coaches.

This is a season in which Graham could become the all-time wins leader for the West baseball program. He’s 15 away from that distinction.

Cauble won 136 times at West before he headed to Carson when that school opened in the fall of 2006. Graham is 122-56, a stellar winning percentage of .685.

Had COVID not shut down the 2020 season and drastically shortened 2021, Graham, who guided the Falcons to three consecutive 20-win seasons from 2015-17, would have at least 140 wins in the bank already.

Winning 20 this season will be difficult and even getting 15 will be a challenge.

Not because the Falcons won’t be good, but because of the competitive environment in which they play. West was 15-11 in 2022, a year in which South Rowan was the 3A state champ and East Rowan had to be one of the best five in 3A. The Cabarrus schools aren’t slouches, making the South Piedmont Conference one of the state’s toughest 3A leagues.

How many teams are going to beat South’s Haiden Leffew this season? Or East’s Chance Mako? Or Carson’s Hayden Simmerson?

The correct answer to that question is “Not many.”

West doesn’t have a big-name ace who can match fastballs with the power arms of its neighbors, but the Falcons do have a deep staff and they have experienced players in the lineup.

“It’s true we don’t have a Mako or a Leffew, but we’d take our chances in a three-game series with anyone,” Graham said. “We really like our team.”

The Falcons, like all the other strong baseball programs, have been getting ready for months.  West players still take advantage of the opportunity to be part of the winning Rowan County American Legion program every summer. The Falcons also have been all-in for fall leagues and winter workouts.

“What we have right now is a great combination of veteran players and extremely talented young guys,” Graham said. “The older guys are helping teach our culture and the way we play the game to the younger ones.”

West moves forward without pitchers Casey Gouge and Jake Blevins, who were the two biggest reasons the Falcons won 15 last season. Gouge won six decisions, while leading the team offensively in runs scored and triples. A big bat is also missing. Zander Burton thumped 10 doubles and paced the Falcons in RBIs and on-base percentage.

The marquee returner is Luke Graham, who is well-known to Rowan Legion fans as well as football fans. The quarterback/second baseman led West last season in hits (30) and batting average (.357).

West also returns talented Brice Knox, the starting shortstop for the Falcons as a freshman.

Catcher Matt Connolly, outfielder Elijah Palmer, pitchers Drew Burton, Alex O’Rourke and Nate Green and Zach McNeely, who can play a lot of positions, are familiar to Rowan County Legion fans. Connolly, Palmer and McNeely are seniors who are Surry Community College commits.

Burton, a junior who had an ERA of 0.74 for the Falcons as the third arm in 2022, is expected to lead the pitching staff.

“We’ll use Drew as a starter, but he may also close when he’s available,” Coach Graham said.

Luke Graham and Connolly will get a lot more chances on the mound this season, as will O’Rourke and Green.

Corbin Bailey, a junior who was hurt in 2022, is healthy now and has looked good.

Sophomore Eli Graham could be a factor, and there are a host of talented freshmen who can pitch, including Cole Blevins, Jake’s younger brother.

West will have no shortage of hurling options.

Connolly, an excellent receiver with a middle-of-the-lineup bat, will be the catcher if he’s not pitching. Luke Graham will move behind the plate when Connolly pitches.

When he’s not pitching or catching, Graham will play second base. Andrew Helmbold will step in at second when Graham is needed elsewhere. Knox, who has excellent speed, will anchor the infield at shortstop.

McNeely or Burton will man third base. At first base will be junior Koen Franz or freshman Luke Ponczka.

“Luke could be the next big power hitter in Rowan County,” Coach Graham said.

Coach Graham envisions a standard starting outfield of Palmer in center, Green in right and freshman Maddox Moore in left. Cole Blevins could figure into the outfield mix, and now that basketball is over, another freshman, Brant Graham, could make an impact.

The Falcons have earned a reputation during Graham’s coaching tenure as high on-base percentage guys who will grind out each at-bat and will battle with two strikes.

They’ll compete and they’ll win their share even in a stacked league.

And the future is bright with so many freshmen ready for varsity action.


West Rowan baseball glance

Coach: Seth Graham (9th season, 122-56).

Top returners: Luke Graham, Matt Connolly

Key newcomer: Freshman slugger Luke Ponczka

Key losses: Casey Gouge, Jake Blevins, Zander Burton

2021 record: 15-11

Conference regular-season championships: 1960, 1961, 1969, 1974, 1994, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2015, 2016, 2017

Opening Day: Wednesday, March 1, vs. North Iredell