By Mike London
Surprisingly pleasant weather gave several East Rowan players a chance to wear short-sleeve T-shirts and flex expanded muscles on the first official day of baseball practice at Staton Field on Monday.
East senior Micah Jarrett appeared at one basketball game this winter wearing an Amazing Spider-Man costume, and he didn’t need padded biceps.
Jarrett now looks like he could whip Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent ó all at the same time ó and then chase the Green Goblin up a tall building.
Jarrett didn’t obtain new powers by being bitten by a radioactive spider or landing in a spaceship from doomed Krypton, but he’s picked up quite a few solid pounds through old-fashioned hard work.
All-everything shortstop Justin Roland, who signed with Charlotte, is also thicker in the chest and shoulders this spring. So is Ben DeCelle. So is Corbin Shive. So is everyone else in Granite Quarry.
“A lot of guys have done all the lifting we’ve asked them to do, and then they’ve gone and lifted on their own at the Y,” East coach Brian Hightower explained. “We haven’t had 100 percent participation in the offseason, but we’ve had 85 or 90. That’s pretty good.”
Hightower was enthusiastic about “the best weather ever” for the first official day of baseball.
The coach appears to be the same size as last year, but expectations for his team have gotten larger now that the Mustangs have dropped down from 4A to the 3A North Piedmont Conference.
East more than held its own in 4A ó two second-place finishes in the loaded Central Piedmont and 40 wins in two seasons ó but returning mashers such as Roland, Jarrett and Trey Holmes could bump already healthy batting averages 100 points in 3A.
In the CPC, just about every pitcher East saw was a stud. The Mustangs still will face tough aces such as Mooresville’s Aubrey Meadows and Lake Norman’s Nick Lomascolo, but there’s a difference in pitching depth between 3A and 4A.
Hightower made friends in 4A, and the Mustangs aren’t cutting ties with every CPC school. East opens Feb. 26 against West Forsyth, and the Mustangs also tackle powerhouse North Davidson. North Davidson ace Zach White signed with Wake Forest, while No. 2 pitcher Clay Watson inked with Catawba. Shortstop Levi Michael is headed to North Carolina.
East has to adjust to the loss of catcher/leader Ross Steedley and hustling outfielder D.C. Cranford, but on paper the Mustangs enter 2008 as the county’s top team.
South Rowan makes the same 4A to 3A move as the Mustangs, and the underrated Raiders will also make the NPC stronger.
South coach Linn Williams is in his eighth season and has a flock of fast, talented athletes. Matt Ingold, Ryan Bostian, Caleb Shore and Maverick Miles lead returners from an 11-15 team that was sixth in the CPC.
“If we can find a catcher and our pitchers can throw strikes, we’ll be OK,” Williams said. “We should be able to go and get it defensively.”
Senior Michael Morgan missed basketball season because of health issues, but he’s “good to go.” He’ll aid a mound corps headed by Jordan Lowder.
Carson was 9-16 in its first year under Chris Cauble. Eight wins came in the NPC and earned the Cougars a tie for third and a state playoff berth.
The big challenge for Cauble will be to replace workhorse Walker Snow, who was 7-5 with 79 strikeouts.
Pitcher Randy Shepherd and infielder Jeremy Mullis head the returning Cougars.
At West Rowan, the major news is the rise of the Blue Monster in left field. It was inspired by its green counterpart at Boston’s Fenway Park.
“The Blue Monster is a pretty ominous deal when you get up close to it,” said second-year coach David Wright, who guided the Falcons to a 15-11 mark and a runner-up finish to Mooresville in the NPC.
The Blue Monster is constructed of tin and looms 20 feet high. The imposing structure stretches 85 feet from the left-field line toward center and has two purposes. Not only is it in play, it protects West’s new cage area that lies behind it.
Junior Dylan Andrews is ticketed to be Wright’s Carl Yastrzemski. He’ll play in the shadow of the Monster and learn its angles and tricks.
“Dylan’s a young guy, but all I’ve got this year are young guys,” Wright said with a laugh. “It’s quite a sight to see a ball go off the Monster. If you hit it on a line the ball shoots, but if it’s a high fly it seems to die.”
West lost its big stick, Weston Church, but it still has super shortstop Philip Miclat, smooth catcher Hernan Bautista, solid outfielder Brantley Horton and proven pitcher Jake Koontz, who tossed a no-hitter against West Iredell last season.
Wright is turning his field into one of Rowan’s showplaces with windscreens, improved dugouts and a track running all the way around the field. How high his team can go in the beefed-up NPC depends on how long it takes youngsters such as outfielder Brett Huffman, second baseman Tyler King and lefty pitcher Zack Simpson to mature into standouts.
“Our league got tougher with East and South,” Wright said. “South’s got some great kids that I know very well from coaching them in Legion ball. Mooresville is going to be very good. Northwest Cabarrus will be stronger this year and watch out for Lake Norman. They’ve got almost everyone back and their jayvees were better than some varsity teams we played.”
New North Rowan coach Rob Linder will count on two strong pitchers ó Lander signee Billy Veal and Nick Smith, who is on the basketball team ó to lead a young squad.
North was 15-13 last season, good for third in the 2A CCC, but graduation losses were heavy.
On March 24, Linder will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the no-hitter he threw for Catawba against North Carolina A&T. That was the last no-hitter thrown by an Indian and one of only three in school history.
Salisbury’s Scott Maddox is in his eighth season at the helm of the Hornets, and this team could be as good as the one that posted a 17-9 record in 2006. The Hornets were 13-14 last spring, and the pitchers that won those 13 games are still around.
“At a school our size you’re not going to have a whole lot of surprises the first day, but we didn’t need any,” Maddox said. “Where would we put new guys? We’ve basically got everybody back on varsity and they should all be better.”
Maddox won’t be able to fill out his entire lineup card by writing “Ijames,” but he will have four players ó Robbie, David, Ben and Anthony ó with that surname.
Salisbury also has Alex Britt, Russell Michalec and Will Mowery back in uniform, so it should be part of the CCC’s top tier. Ledford is probably the favorite.
Maddox is high on freshman John Knox, who is with the basketball team, but he feels the key new face will be pitching coach Justin Morgan. A new P.E. teacher, Morgan hurled collegiately at Radford.
n Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or email@example.com.
By Mike London