By Mike London
Finally, everyone is noticing Jacob Dobbins.
Dobbins, a North Rowan graduate who has committed to play baseball at Methodist, is a catcher.
Catching is the most precious commodity on the Rowan County Legion team after knee surgery ended starting backstop Ross Steedley's season.
Dobbins seems less concerned than anyone as Rowan opens the playoffs tonight at Newman Park against Mooresville. He sounds excited, not nervous.
"I hate it for Ross, but it's an opportunity for me, and I think I can handle it," Dobbins said. "I kind of look forward to playing every night and getting in a hitting groove."
Rowan was required to send in a fixed playoff roster June 30. It got the bad news on Steedley after that and doesn't have the option of promoting a Junior Legion catcher such as Austin Shull or Hernan Bautista.
Pitcher/outfielder Matt Hall has been appointed Dobbins' backup and is a heartbeat away from putting on a chest protector. The catcher is the most vulnerable player on the field, always a broken finger on a foul tip or one bruising collision away from being sidelined.
Dobbins was a steady .333 hitter for three varsity seasons at North and was named to the all-county team this spring.
He batted .300 in 50 at-bats for the 2006 Legion team, sharing the workload with Kevin Creason when Steedley was shelved by a balky hamstring.
Dobbins has gotten lots of swings this summer with Steedley fighting the normal bumps and bruises that are part of the catching profession.
He's performed exceptionally, batting .338 with 30 RBIs in 74 official at-bats.
Only No. 3 hitter Weston Church and cleanup man Trey Holmes have produced more RBIs, and they've both had more than 100 at-bats.
"There is nothing at all wrong with Jacob's swing," Rowan coach Jim Gantt said. "When a guy drives the ball hard the other way like he does, you just don't mess with him a whole lot."
Where Rowan loses something with Steedley out of action is on defense. That's not a knock on Dobbins, who is well above average, but Steedley was one of the best ever when he had a mask on. As far as throwing, receiving, blocking the plate and handling the pitching staff, he had no peers.
Parents aren't always the most objective people in the world, but Mark Dobbins -- Jacob's father and the guy who taught his son to hammer the ball to the opposite field -- is a realist.
"I've never complained once about Jacob playing behind Ross," he said. "Ross Steedley is a great catcher. Someone has done an unbelievable job coaching him."
Dobbins appeared headed for another summer as Steedley's backup. That changed with Steedley's ill-fated slide into second base that resulted in a torn meniscus.
Dobbins has risen to the challenge of a starting role, especially on defense.
"Jacob had a real good game at Statesville," Gantt said. "Keegan (Linza) was pitching. He buried a lot of third-strike breaking balls in the dirt, and Jacob blocked every one of them. That showed me Jacob was staying in it mentally, and that's a real good sign. It's big for the pitchers to know he's going to block those balls."
Dobbins' year has come full circle. His senior high school season got off to an awful start. He had one RBI in North's first 10 games. He was taking hittable pitches, then chasing bad ones.
"I couldn't find my swing," Dobbins said. "What I've always worked on with my dad is line drives to right field and center, and I was pulling the ball, rolling over, and hitting groundballs to shortstop. About the last seven or eight games, it finally started to click."
Dobbins hit four homers down the stretch, the first ones he'd ever swatted for the Cavaliers. All came on the road. All were big, including one in the state playoffs.
He carried that momentum into the Legion season, and he's gotten in increasingly better shape. The 6-foot-2 slugger weighed 215 pounds in the spring. Now he checks in at a svelte 200.
"His body is sure a lot different now," Gantt said. "He's still a big boy, but he's moved that weight around some, and he carries it real well."
Dobbins attended camps at Appalachian State and Wingate and received a mailbox full of recruiting letters, but he remained uncommitted throughout the school year.
After North and Rowan Legion teammate Jason Ridenhour decided on Methodist, that's where Dobbins really wanted to go. Ridenhour, who will be his future roommate, did a nice job as his press agent.
Methodist assistant Kevin Allingham, a Catawba graduate, made the trip from Fayetteville to watch Dobbins play against Montgomery County. Dobbins homered and knocked in five runs. That probably sealed his college destination.
"This summer's been a good situation for Jacob," Gantt said. "People got to see him, and now he has a great opportunity to play in college. The best thing of all is playing Legion ball didn't cost him a dime."
Dobbins, who plans to major in business administration and sports management, moved to Rowan from Gastonia when he was in second grade. He signed up for Spencer Little League, and his coach put a mask on him the very first day.
"They stuck me back there behind the plate," Dobbins said with a laugh. "I guess it's because I was always one of the big kids."
Ten years later, Rowan Legion fans are glad they put that mask on him. Right now, he's as important as anyone on the roster.
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.