College baseball: Indians ready for regional

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 16, 2024

By Mike London

SALISBURY — As Catawba College’s baseball team prepares to host half of the Southeast Regional on Thursday at Newman Park, head coach Jim Gantt points at sports performance director Matt Mauldin as one of the behind-the-scenes keys to a stout season.

While strength and conditioning professionals are generally linked mostly with football, Mauldin, who was a very good baseball player at North Rowan and Winston-Salem State, has made an impact on a number of sports at Catawba, including baseball, since he was hired about a year ago.

Mauldin had stints working for the strength and conditioning programs at Texas State, Georgia State, Appalachian State, Wake Forest and Wingate before coming to Catawba.

“Matt has been a difference-maker,” Gantt said. “Our guys bought into getting stronger and embraced what Matt asked them to do. They got stronger and stronger players are better players.”

Catawba players have not only gotten stronger, they had a healthy season, compared to many previous ones. Right fielder Dylan Driver had a hamstring issue for a while, but he worked to get back on the field and produced another terrific season.

If you’re skeptical about a stronger Catawba program, you can point to the Indians’ 12-11 record away from Newman Park, but playing at home, there’s no question they have been an exceptional team — 28-3. That tremendous home record keyed a 40-14 season, and even with the Indians losing two South Atlantic Conference Tournament games at Newman Park to Lincoln Memorial, Catawba received the No. 1 seed for the Southeast Regional.

The first segment of the Southeast Regional format is a double-elimination mini-tournament, Then the winner of the tournament at Catawba and the winner of a tournament at second-seeded North Greenville will meet in a best-of-three series for the regional championship. Catawba would host that best-of-three if it can survive the first stage.

Catawba is in the regional tournament — there are eight seven-team regionals taking place nationwide — for the 14th time and is the No. 1 seed for the third time.

As the No. 1 seed, Catawba once hosted the regional at Thomasville’s Finch Field. There was another year in which Catawba was the No. 1 seed, but the regional tournament was viewed as a distraction to graduation ceremonies by administrators, so No. 2 seed North Greenville hosted the event.

But this time, for the first time, Catawba actually will get to play regional games on its historic home field. That should be a decided advantage for the Indians. It’s an advantage that they may need, as the other two teams assigned to play in Salisbury, the 4 and 5 seeds, are very good.

Fourth-seeded UNC Pembroke (42-12) already has beaten Catawba twice this season, once at UNCP and once at Atrium Health Ballpark in Kannapolis. Both games went extra innings.

UNCP boasts two of the nation’s top hitters. Joey Rezek is batting .413 with 20 homers and 71 RBIs. Kody O’Connor has 16 homers and 74 RBIs. The Braves, who are batting .330 as a team, also have a finisher. Chase Jernigan is on the national leaderboard with nine saves.

Fifth-seeded Young Harris, a Georgia college, has two of Division II’s top pitchers. Zach Murray has struck out 92 batters, while Dylan Beck owns 10 saves.

“There are no cupcakes in our regional,” Gantt said.

Catawba, UNCP and Young Harris can run, pitch and play defense. All three are in the top 50 nationally in Division II in stolen bases and ERA.

Catawba, batting .324 as a team, has gotten 29 steals from left fielder Drew Robertson and 27 from center fielder Sam Hunter.

The other four teams in the regional — the 2, 3, 6 and 7 seeds — will be playing games at second-seeded North Greenville. That group includes sixth-seeded Wingate, the SAC tournament champion. Wingate swept Lincoln Memorial in the SAC’s best-of-three championship series.

“Lincoln Memorial played two flawless games against us, but then they lost to a Wingate team that is talented and capable,” Gantt said. “Wingate could win the regional.”

Catawba baseball, as usual, has a strong local flavor, players who competed for Rowan high schools and for the Rowan County or Kannapolis American Legion teams. Key players for the Indians with Rowan ties include first baseman Logan Rogers, second baseman Ty Hubbard, third baseman/pitcher Cole Hales, right fielder Driver, catcher Bo Rusher and pitchers Payne Stolsworth, Hayden Simmerson and Casey Gouge.

“Having so many local players has meant a lot as far as fan support,” Gantt said. “When we played Lenoir-Rhyne and Wingate, we had 750, 800 fans at the park. We should have some good crowds for the regional.”

Stolsworth, who starred at West Rowan and North Carolina Wesleyan before returning home to compete at Catawba as a graduate student, has a 10-3 record and was the SAC Pitcher of the Year. The plan is for him to pitch in Catawba’s second regional game on Friday at 6 p.m.

Austin Fine (8-2) will get the start in Catawba’s first game at 7 p.m. on Thursday night. Catawba will play the loser of the Young Harris-UNC Pembroke game that will start at 3:30 p.m.

“That’s the formula that got us here,” Gantt said. “Fine, then Stolsworth. Fine always had the challenge of pitching against someone’s ace to start every series. He’s used to that role.”

Hales (4-0), Mason Gwyn (8-1), Gouge (4-2), Brandon Rodgers (2-1), Carson Edmiston (0-2) and Simmerson (3-3, 6 saves) have been the most active members of the pitching staff after the two aces.

Simmerson, the SAC Freshman of the Year, was in a starting role early, but made more of an impact when he switched to the bullpen as a closer capable of pitching multiple innings.

“Simmerson was facing a lot of long at-bats and throwing a lot of pitches as a starter,” Gantt said. “We were only getting four or five innings out of him. But as a reliever, he’s been able to help us in more games. At first, he looked at going to the bullpen as a demotion, but once he embraced the role of reliever, he was really good for us. He’s got swing-and-miss stuff, and it’s a good feeling to be able to send him out there to close a game.”

Gantt said Stolsworth, Hunter, a transfer from Queens, and Rusher, a transfer from Gardner-Webb, have been huge additions.

“They are some of our most talented guys, but they’ve been great people and great teammates as well as being really good players,” Gantt said. “This has been a team without any egos. We won a conference regular-season championship (the Indians were picked fourth in the preseason) but we kind of did it quietly. These guys just showed up at the park and played hard every day. There haven’t been a lot of ups and downs.”

It’s been a steady season. Catawba’s longest losing streak has been two games.

Rusher, who starred at Salisbury High, has been awesome. A sturdy catcher, he’s slugged seven homers and leads the Indians with 61 RBIs.

Rusher was first team All-SAC, along with Stolsworth, Fine and shortstop and leadoff batter Levi Perrell (.373, 60 runs).

Simmerson, Hunter (.353, 54 RBIs), Driver (.372, 59 runs, 44 RBIs) and Robertson (.366, 47 runs) made the All-SAC second team.

Rogers hit a team-leading 12 homers and drove in 50 runs, while batting .314. Hales batted .305 with 43 RBIs. Cooper Bryson, often the DH,  batted .288 with 33 RBIs. Hubbard batted .255 with 43 runs scored.

It’s a deep lineup. Catawba hit 42 homers and averaged better than 8 runs per game.

It’s  going to be a tough regional. Newman Park will help. Actually the turf field at Newman Park already was helping on Tuesday.

The back fields where the Indians play softball and soccer were flooded by rain, but the Indians were still able to take batting practice on the baseball field.

“Never thought I could love a baseball field with no grass,” Gantt said. “But I’ve changed my mind.”