Softball: Yang, Rowan Little League ready to make more memories

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 30, 2023


By Mike London

SALISBURY — It’s a mismatch. Taylor Walton, a Division I college player who starred at West Rowan, is pitching to girls who are 11 or 12.

Walton, one of the standouts of Rowan Little League’s 2015 World Series championship team, is back in the circle at Salisbury Community Park, helping the latest group of wide-eyed RLL youngsters prepare for the program’s sixth World Series trip.

“Taylor is throwing hard, about 60 miles an hour, and that can be an humbling experience for a Little League girl,” manager Steve Yang said. “We’ve had a lot of Rowan Little League alumni out here scrimmaging with us. There’s always been a strong sense of family and community when it comes to Rowan Little League, and those girls all have great memories from their Little League days and have been glad to help us out. The older girls are making running catches and they’re throwing people out. We just have to keep reminding our young girls to keep their spirits up, that these girls who are helping them prepare are older and bigger than they are. They’re making plays that normal 12-year-olds aren’t going to make against us in the World Series. Our kids have competed and they have battled and they haven’t gotten frustrated, and that’s what we wanted to see.”

Yang put several scrimmages with the alumni together because Rowan Little League has had an unusual amount of down time between live games this summer.

Rowan Little League earned a direct entry into the World Series for the first time this summer and didn’t have to fight its way through the gauntlet of the Southeast Regional in Georgia as it has done frequently in the past.

The North Carolina champ gets a direct entry to the World Series now because North Carolina is the host state for the Little League World Series. Pitt County (Greenville) has replaced Portland, Ore., the city where Walton and her teammates achieved fame as young kids and became household names in Rowan County.

North Carolina’s state tournament also was hosted by Pitt County, and Rowan Little League expected to have its hands full with the host team, which beat Rowan last summer, as well as a loaded new entry from Mallard Creek.

Mallard Creek beat Pitt County in the opening round. Rowan crushed Southern Durham in the first round, and then survived Mallard Creek 2-1 in a lightning-plagued winner’s bracket final to quickly secure a spot in the World Series. Rowan only had to play two games.

“That game with Mallard Creek was delayed at 3:15 and then got started back at 10:30, but our girls hung in there and grinded out a great win,” Yang said. “Mallard Creek has a powerful team.”

The drama increased when Pitt County beat Mallard Creek 5-4 in a rematch to determine which team would represent North Carolina in the Southeast Regional. Pitt County secured that regional championship in Georgia on Friday morning, shutting out the Tennessee champs, so now Pitt County and Rowan will both be in the upcoming World Series.

“Pitt County always had outstanding youth softball, but they just switched to playing Little League softball in recent years,” Yang said. “They’ve got a good team. Playing in their backyard, they’re going to be a formidable entry in the World Series.”

With bells, horns and sirens blaring, the Rowan Little League 12U softball girls will start their latest quest from West End Plaza.

They’ll be leaving for the World Series at 8 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 3., and fans are urged to come out and help send them off. Games start on Aug. 6.

It’s a much easier trip to Greenville than it was trying to get to Portland in the old days. It’s a 200-mile drive now rather than a dash to an airport for the long flight to Portland.

“Playing the World Series in Greenville does make that part of it a little more relaxing, a little less stressful, and we’ve had more preparation time than we would normally have,” Yang said. “There’s still quite a bit of expense involved in going to the World Series and we won’t turn down anyone who wants to help. We did have a little time to raise funds at Farmer’s Day and the girls got donations at the Lowe’s locations in Mooresville and Salisbury.”

Yang, a local dentist and youth coach, is a veteran of the World Series experience. He’s not bored by the hoopla yet, but he’s been there, and he’s done it.

Rowan Little League has been a factor at the state, regional and national level in this age group for many years.

Yang piloted World Series champions in 2015 and 2019. His older daughter, Ellen, played for the 2015 champs, while his daughter, Ashley, who is now a Salisbury High student, played for the 2019 winners.

There aren’t a ton of Little League softball programs in North Carolina, so Rowan Little League is able to draw from a wide area. The team is normally a mix of Rowan County and Mooresville girls.

Besides the two World Series championships, Rowan finished as national runner-up in 2016 and 2017.

There have been quite a few parades through Salisbury.

Rowan Little League’s 2018, 2021 and 2022 teams lost in regional championship games to Tennessee and Virginia squads, but the 2021 Rowan squad still got to go to the World Series as a regional runner-up. COVID had eliminated participation by all the international teams in 2021, after canceling its entire season in 2020.

The lowest finish that Rowan Little League has had since 2015 is regional runner-up. The program, guided by president Dan Wales, has been a dynasty in the Little League softball world and has staged an impressive run.

Yang thought his managing days were over when his daughters aged out of Little League, but he’s continued to assist Donnell Poole the last two summers. While Yang agreed to return to a managerial role this year, Poole is still an important coach, as is Jeff Bernhardt.

“I had to really think about it as far as wanting to manage the team again, but I’ve worked with Donnell a long time and we’re comfortable with each other and we make a good team,” Yang said. “My wife (Lori) gave me her blessing, so here I am.”

There’s probably less stress on Yang than in some previous years because now there are no Yangs on the lineup card. Coaching a team that your child plays on at this level isn’t the easiest task in the world.

Yang was born in South Korea and lived in Los Angeles as a youth.

His parents wanted a quieter place than L.A. to raise a family, so they put their trust in a higher power and set out on a quest, driving east when Yang was 8 years old.

They finally stopped driving in Salisbury. They decided Salisbury was the right place to put down roots.

Yang lost both of his parents while he was still young, but they had found a permanent home for him.

After college and dental school, he came back to Rowan County, and he and Lori have been impactful people in the community. Their children have been notable Salisbury High athletes. Ellen Yang even played baseball for the high school — yes, baseball — and as the No. 9 hitter and second baseman, she was on base for a lot of UNC star Vance Honeycutt’s RBIs.

The Rowan team that Yang, Poole and Bernhardt will be leading in Greenville is a young one. The 12 girls are evenly split between those with a league age of 11 and those with a league age of 12. Only three of the 12 girls are returners from the 2022 team, with catcher Cressley Patterson being the most recognizable name. Patterson was one of the top hitters in 2022.

“We have a lot of new girls, but we believe we’ve got a good team, with a lot of similarities to our championship teams,” Yang said. “We have a very strong battery (Remi Hagerty and Patterson), and that’s where it always has to start in softball.”

There have been tweaks to the rulebook that have taken some of the coaching maneuvers out of it. In years past, everyone on the roster was required to play an inning in the field and get at least one at-bat, so there was a great deal of strategy involved as far as when to employ the bench players.

Now a continuous batting order will be used. All 12 girls who are on the Rowan team will be in the lineup. While they’ll all swing, all 12 are no longer required to play an inning in the field.

“We’ve got a deep team and all 12 can play, but this rule makes those at-bats from the top-of-the-lineup girls even more critical,” Yang said. “It’s going to be a while before they get back up there again.”

There also are more limitations regarding “special” runners. Courtesy runners can only be used now for the pitcher or catcher and only when there are two outs. That courtesy runner can only be the player in the batting order who made the last out.

The team members are Hagerty, Patterson, Megan Linebarger, LeNiyah Ratcliffe, Ansley Jenkins, Tenley Shell, Emma Smith, Makynzie Melchor, Addison Barrier, Bristol Smith, Ashlyn Pfister and CJ Haines.

The goal for Rowan Little League will be a third World Championship, but whatever happens, it will be a positive outcome for all the participants. Lifetime friendships and lifetime memories are going to be made in Greenville. It’s a big stage, games are televised, and that means some pressure, but it’s also going to be fun.

It’s close enough that all the Yangs will be on hand to support their favorite dentist, and it’s close enough that Rowan softball fans can make the drive to watch some of the county’s future stars.

“I think every girl who has ever played for Rowan Little League in the World Series would say she had a great experience,” Yang said. “The wins provide lasting memories, and even those times when we’ve lost, we’ve learned a lot from it.”