American Legion baseball: Rowan hopes to compete in condensed Area III

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 6, 2024

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Rowan County’s American Legion baseball team went 39-7 last summer and has won the last three Area III championships, but this year’s team may be an underdog more often than usual.

Six players from East Rowan’s 3A state champions arrived to boost the Rowan Legion squad on Monday, although the Legion team won’t have any of those devastating power hitters from the middle of the Mustangs’ lineup.

Rowan did make a huge add with former West Rowan, Rowan Legion and Surry Community County standout Matt Connolly on Wednesday. Connolly, a slugging catcher/first baseman, was Region 10 Player of the Year at Surry.

The team is now at full strength, with the exception of head coach Jim Gantt, who has been busy with the Catawba Indians in the Division II World Series.

Seth Graham, West Rowan’s head coach, has been piloting the team in Gantt’s absence. Gantt has been the head coach for the program since 2001.

Rowan is 2-6 in the early going this season and has had an awful time scoring runs, although that was partly because the East players missed the first six games due to the length of the high school state playoffs.

No serious harm has been done to Rowan’s season. Conference games won’t start until Rowan plays Kannapolis at Newman Park on Friday.

The Southern Division of Area III will only have four teams competing this summer, with Concord and Mocksville joining Rowan County and Kannapolis.

Davidson County has shifted back to the Northern Division, while Mooresville won’t have an entry this summer.

The Northern Division also has only four teams now, with Randolph County, High Point, Liberty (formerly Eastern Randolph) and Davidson County taking the field.

Ten years ago, there were 17 teams in Area III and nine in the Southern Division alone, but times change.

Five of the East Rowan players are expected to start most of the time.

Catawba recruit Logan Dyer played second base for East because the Mustangs had one of the best players in the state, Cobb Hightower, at shortstop, but Dyer figures to man shortstop for the Legion team when he’s not on the mound. Dyer slashes a lot of line drives, and hell be expected to be the ace pitcher for the Legion team after a phenomenal 12-0 high school season.

Braden Shive was East’s right fielder and batted over .400. He has exceptional speed and produces quite a few doubles and triples. He’s expected to be the starter in right field for the Legion team. He’ll be a Catawba student this fall and he may play baseball for the Indians.

Tusculum recruit Nate Hayworth was the center fielder for East Rowan, but he likely will play left field for the Legion team. He’s a line-drive hitter who runs very well, and like Shive and Dyer, he was an All-South Piedmont Conference player. He didn’t pitch a lot for East Rowan, which had Dyer and sophomore phenom Harrison Ailshie handling the conference games and Hightower closing them, but Hayworth probably will be an important pitcher for the Legion team.

Joe Burleyson, an East graduate who was recruited by Catawba, is a combination pitcher/catcher. He’s expected to be primarily a pitcher for the Catawba Indians, but he’s an asset at either end of the battery. He may catch often for the Legion team this summer, and he’ll be counted on as one of the top pitchers. He was the third pitcher for East Rowan and had a 5-0 record.

Krys Hernandez didn’t have a defined position for East Rowan, but he was always in the lineup somewhere. He played third base, left field or catcher, depending on who East put on the mound. That versatility will make him valuable to the Legion team, although it’s possible that he’ll wind up as the starter at third base.

Tyler Hill didn’t play much for East Rowan this year. The younger brother of former Rowan Legion slugger Blake Hill, he was listed on the East roster as a third baseman and pitcher. He got an RBI in his first Legion at-bat on Monday.

With Mooresville not competing this summer, Rowan was able to add two Mooresville players — left-handed pitcher Connor Park and outfielder/pitcher Southern Smith-Tilley. Park had the distinction of earning Rowan’s first win of the season. Tilley was one of Rowan’s best offensive players in the early games.

Rowan welcomed two experienced Legion players came back from a stout Surry Community College team. Center fielder Elijah Palmer and second baseman Luke Graham, 2023 West Rowan graduates, will be key men for the Legion team. Graham isn’t blessed with power, but he piles up singles and walks, is constantly on base and can turn the double play. Palmer can go get it in the outfield and could be a .300 hitter.

An outfield of Hayworth, Palmer and Shive is potentially elite defensively and can be a big help to Rowan’s pitching staff.

Rowan has quite a few players from West Rowan, as is often the case.

Drew Burton is an experienced two-way Legion player. He had an All-South Piedmont Conference senior season for the Falcons. He’ll be a key pitcher and he may be in the lineup at DH, first base or third base.

Brant Graham was a frontline pitcher for the Falcons and could be in the lineup at first base when he’s not on the mound. He’s a year-round athlete who is West’s football quarterback and a starter on the basketball team.

Eli Graham is an infielder/pitcher, who probably will be Rowan County’s shortstop when Dyer pitches. He’s the younger brother of Luke Graham.

Alex Hagler is another pitcher from West with plenty of Legion experience.

Gaige Scruggs is a capable catcher from West and has thrown out a lot of men on the bases in the early going.

Nate Greene is an outfielder/pitcher who can help the Legion team mostly on the mound. He’s pitched well in some early games.

Salisbury’s Evan Koontz will be helpful as a pitcher/third baseman. He had a strong high school season for the Hornets and made the All-Central Carolina Conference team,

Salisbury’s Cole Price has experience at first and third base, catcher and pitcher and swings the bat well. He also was an All-CCC player of the Hornets.

Rowan County has 2023 North Rowan grads Trey Johnson and Malakie Harris on the roster. Harris, a first baseman, got a few at-bats at Guilford College as a freshman, while Johnson, an outfielder, was on the team at Rockingham Community College but saw limited action. Harris has extra-base power when he connects and won an early game for Rowan with a double, while Johnson brings speed to the table.

Rowan didn’t get any players from Carson this year. Carson players have been a key ingredient for Rowan Legion success for a number of years, but the Cougars that are playing Legion ball this summer will be suiting up for Kannapolis Post 115.