American Legion baseball: Rowan County has high hopes

Published 12:03 am Sunday, May 21, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Rowan County American Legion coaches patched together a 36-9 season in 2022, ran the table in the Southern Division of Area III and made it to another state tournament mostly on the backs of two workhorse pitchers.

Those two hurlers, Casey Gouge and Jake Blevins, who combined for 17 of Rowan County’s wins. are gone now.

Rowan head coach Jim Gantt, who has led the program since 2001, had hoped to have Blevins, who recently completed his freshman season at Pfeiffer, back for another summer.

“That would’ve been nice — Jake was really good for us last year,” Gantt said, “But he got a spot on a college wood bat team, and I get that.”

Rowan also subtracted Jackson Deal, who was a terrific defensive center fielder and a run-creating catalyst for the offense, but the cupboard is far from bare.

Rowan has the most experience it’s had in quite a while and will have the deepest squad it’s fielded in quite a while.

If everyone can stay healthy, there won’t be much patching to do this summer for Gantt and assistant coaches Seth Graham and Lee Poteat. The biggest challenge will be finding enough at-bats to go around for a small army of sluggers, but that’s a great problem to have.

Rowan also expects to be sending experienced pitchers to the mound this summer, rather than counting on catchers, infielders and outfielders who rarely saw the mound in high school, to give the team some innings and a chance to win.

“We had a really good turnout, a lot of guys from West and a lot of guys from Carson and we hope to get quite a few from East when their season is over,” Gantt said. “It’s not perfect. We’ve got a lot of first baseman/DH kind of guys, we could use more outfielders, and you can never have enough pitching, but we can have a good team.”

East’s very stout season (23-5) was headed for a fourth-round game at West Henderson on Friday. West was good enough to beat East twice and share the South Piedmont Conference championship with the Mustangs. Carson was good enough to win a 3A playoff game.

But it’s not a perfect scenario for this Legion squad. There are no players from North Rowan, South Rowan or Salisbury, although Rowan County will have a former Hornet who played  for the Combine Academy, a private school in Lincolnton that played an elite schedule. JT Taylor, a North Carolina A&T signee, is a talented athlete.

“He can play infield or outfield, although we’re looking at him right now as our shortstop,” Gantt said.

Cole Johnson, an excellent player from North Iredell, was able to suit up for Rowan County last season. He helped North Iredell make a nice 3A playoff run, which included beating top-seeded Ledford. Johnson was Rowan County’s shortstop in 2022, but he may play mostly second base this summer, Second base figures to be his college position. He is a Catawba signee.

Luke Graham, Rowan County’s second baseman last season, is coming off a senior year at West in which he batted .500, so he’s not going to be out of the lineup very often. Gantt believes Graham profiles best as a college third baseman, so he could gets starts at second or third.

East Rowan’s Blake Hill, the third baseman for Rowan County last season and the team leader in RBIs with 45, can play third or first. Like Graham, he’s had a super high school season.

While it sounds like musical chairs in the infield, there’s a plan. It means getting each of those players to his optimal position, his college position. Of course, all those proposed moves depend on how Taylor works out at shortstop.

Aiden Schenck, a proven slugger in his days at East and for the Legion team, is back after a year at Cleveland Community College. He’s a very strong lefty bat. He’s a potential DH, but he can play first base or a corner outfield spot.

“It’s amazing how much difference a year of maturity makes,” Gantt said.

McCall Henderson is another strong bat who will be coming from East. He can play left field, but he was the primary DH for Rowan County last season.

Morgan Padgett, another top-notch hitter from East, plans to play Legion ball for the first time. Besides being a hitter with home-run power, the UNC Pembroke recruit is a tough pitcher. He was the No. 2 hurler for East Rowan all season. Defensively, he’s got some versatility. He can catch, play first base or play an outfield corner.

Gantt also expects to have Logan Dyer, an exciting East player with a lot of speed and infield/outfield versatility, for at least part of the season. Dyer, a Catawba commit who still has a year of high school left, is scheduled for labrum (shoulder) surgery this summer.

Catchers are the toughest things to find, but Rowan is blessed there. Carson’s Cameron Burleyson, a Catawba signee, and West’s Matthew Connolly both made the All-South Piedmont Conference team. They split catching duties last summer, and that probably will be the case again.

The newcomers from West include Corbin Bailey, who was the Falcons’ No. 1 pitcher and turned in an unblemished high school season.

West’s Zach McNeely is back. His infield/outfield versatility proved very helpful last summer. So is Drew Burton, a very good pitcher who also can swing the bat.

Also reporting from West were outfielders Elijah Palmer and Nate Green, infielder Andrew Helmbold and pitchers Eli Graham and Alex Hagler.

Carson’s best player — Catawba signee Hayden Simmerson — will be playing Legion baseball for the first time. That’s big. Simmerson had the best pitching stats in the South Piedmont Conference this year, and that’s saying something. He’s also a power hitter who has experience as an infielder.

Carson supplies a lot of Rowan’s mound depth. Experienced lefties Mikey Beasley and Casey Crawford and young reliever Corbin Hales were all important pitchers for the Cougars.

Also joining the Legion team from Carson are Cody Russell, Will Bradshaw and Emory Taylor.

Russell and Bradshaw can hit. Taylor is a quick athlete, one of those rare football/basketball/baseball guys. He has the wheels to be Rowan’s primary center fielder and he also can pitch.

Taylor is focusing exclusively on baseball for the first time this summer, so it’s possible his bat will make a jump as he gets ready for junior college baseball. He didn’t have a big high school season with the stick, but there’s a lot of potential there. He can be a Jackson Deal kind of player.

Gray Stone lefty Maverick Walters is back with the team.

The Rowan team and Rowan fans should have a lot to look forward to. The season got under way at Newman Park on Friday.

“We’ve got a lot of experience, a lot of returners who played hard and were a lot of fun to be around last summer, and experience is bigger than ever now because a lot of baseball players in this age group don’t have the experience they normally have,” Gantt said. “COVID cost guys a season and a half, and a lot of them are still catching up.”

Rowan will again play in the Southern Division of Area III. It’s down to a six-team league now, with Davidson County, Kannapolis, Concord, Mooresville and Mocksville-Davie providing the opposition.

The Northern Division of Area III  has been reduced to five teams — Randolph County, High Point, Greensboro, Chatham County and Foothills, which plays at East Surry High.

The team manager is Jim Fulton.