Greenbrier alum makes most of his opportunity

ATHENS, Ga. --- Georgia Tech didn't get to host an NCAA baseball regional, but it certainly feels like home for Yellow Jackets center fielder Jeff Rowland.

Rowland has been fielding phone calls -- from family and friends in Augusta and Columbia County -- with more frequency than fly balls once it was announced that Georgia Tech was playing in Athens this weekend instead of Atlanta. The freshman out of Greenbrier High School is trying to thrill his followers while disappointing the myriad Bulldogs fans that make up the bulk of people back home.

"Everybody in Augusta loves Georgia," Rowland admitted of the top-seeded regional hosts. "It's hard to find a Georgia Tech fan down there. We'd certainly get a lot of people really upset."

Georgia Tech may be the No. 2 seed at Foley Field, but the Yellow Jackets roster outnumbers Georgia's in Greenbrier grads two-to-one. Rowland and middle reliever Brandon Cumpton hope to get the chance to face former Wolfpack teammate Rich Poythress.

"I don't really care who we play, but it would be a lot of fun playing against Rich," said Rowland, who counts the Bulldogs first baseman as one of his closest friends.

It should come as no surprise that Greenbrier is so well represented in the Athens Regional. Greenbrier has built the kind of program that gets routinely scouted by the major colleges. So when Georgia Tech showed up to see heralded pitchers Cumpton and Nolan Belcher, they discovered added value in the trip in the form of the small blur in center field.

Rowland represented everything the Yellow Jackets wanted and needed both defensively and at the plate to replace all-ACC performer Danny Payne.

"He is your gutty, determined, gritty guy that is a leadoff-type hitter that can really play center field," head coach Danny Hall said. "He can swing the bat, steal bases and can really create a lot of havoc for opposing teams."

In turn, Tech offered Rowland everything he wanted as well.

"I was trying to go to a place that would fit me best where I would have an opportunity to make an impact as soon as I stepped on campus," Rowland said. "It came down to the wire between Georgia and Georgia Tech. It just seemed like a better fit with coach Hall over here. Coach Hall said I would have a really good opportunity to do it and I was hoping I could. He gave me the opportunity and I just tried to make the most of it."

Rowland's coaches at Greenbrier never had a doubt he could make it in a major college program, as long as some team didn't try to judge him by his size.

"The only thing people would question is his size," said former Greenbrier coach Ed Williams, who retired after the Wolfpack won the 2006 state championship in Rowland's first season on the team. "But someone who can run and throw and swing the bat the way he does, I'm glad someone saw his potential. It's the size of the heart that matters."

Rowland transferred from Lakeside to Greenbrier his junior year and subsequently helped the Wolfpack win consecutive state titles. He was part of a core of Division I caliber players that included current Georgia Tech middle reliever Cumpton, Georgia first baseman Poythress and South Carolina signee Belcher.

"It would be hard to beat as far as that well-rounded student-athletes," said Williams of the recent Wolfpack talent pool.

That crew was so successful that Rowland and Poythress both say the biggest adjustment they had make to transition to their respective colleges was learning how to bounce back after losing.

"You've just got to learn from your losses and get better for the next game," said Rowland. "We weren't really used to it at Greenbrier. We won quite a bit. Coming to college you know everybody's as good as you are and you're going to play a team that can beat you any day."

That said, Rowland believes the experience they gained playing at Greenbrier and in the summer leagues made taking the next step pretty easy.

"Coach (Rodney) Holder and coach Williams really prepared us for the next level," Rowland said. "They really set it up to where it's basically like you're playing for a college team and try to mimic everything they do to prepare everybody."

Williams wasn't as quick to accept credit for anything the Wolfpack's recent collection of stars has accomplished.

"I don't know if it's so much what we do as how the kids have been prepared when they get to the high school level," Williams said. "If they enjoyed it and did it well they would have opportunities to go to the next level. When you get kids like that sometimes all you can do is sit back and watch and not try to over-coach."

Rowland stepped directly into the starting center field slot for the Yellow Jackets, occasionally platooning against left-handed pitching.

He's second on the team in batting average (.342) and stolen bases (21 on 25 attempts). Hall switched him from lead-off hitter to second in the order to utilize his bat handling skills as much as his all-around speed.

"I'm comfortable everywhere (in the lineup) just as long as I'm in there," Rowland said.

With their 40th victory of the season in the regional opener Friday against Louisville, Rowland and the Jackets may stay longer than anyone anticipated.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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