College of Charleston baseball coach Monte Lee knew exactly what kind of player he was getting when the Cougars signed shortstop Champ Rowland out of Spartanburg Methodist junior college.
After all, Lee had watched Rowland play as youngster and develop into one of the state’s top defensive shortstops at Wade Hampton High School. With his quick feet, soft hands and Major League throwing arm, Rowland was one of the best defensive shortstops in the state of South Carolina his senior season.
At the plate, well, that was a different matter altogether, but that didn’t matter to Lee.
“There was one reason we recruited Champ and that was because he could play defense,” Lee said. “I’ve had a long history of watching him play. In high school, in junior college, Champ was always a tremendous defensive player. I didn’t care about his bat. If he could do anything offensively at the plate that was just an added bonus.”
In 2014, his first season with the Cougars, Rowland didn’t disappoint. He quickly established himself as one of the top defensive shortstops in the Colonial Athletic Association, but struggled at the plate, hitting just .229 in 44 games in first season at the Division I level.
“I think a lot of my focus last year was on my defense, it’s something I’ve always prided myself on,” Rowland said. “I love being in the field and taking ground balls. It’s my favorite part of the game. I wanted to hit better, be more productive at the plate, but my priority was being good defensively. It was a big adjustment coming from junior college to Division I ball. There are a lot better pitchers at this level.”
Like a lot of his teammates, Rowland was almost embarrassed by the Cougars’ lack of production at the plate during last year’s Lubbock Super Regional against Texas Tech. The Cougars didn’t score a single run, losing both games 1-0 to the Red Raiders.
“I think everyone came back determined to get better at the plate,” Rowland said. “To think about how close we were to getting to the College World Series if we’d just managed to get a few more hits. It was frustrating. I know I spent a lot of extra time in the cages over the summer working on getting better at the plate.”
The results have been nothing short of amazing.
Rowland has improved his batting average by 70 points since last year. He is hitting .299 with two homers and 26 RBIs. He has 56 hits in 52 games and has scored 34 runs batting out of the ninth spot in the Cougars order. He spent most of the season with a batting average above the .300 mark. He’s also seen a dramatic increase in his slugging percentage (.265 to .374) and on-base percentage (.290 to .350) from a year ago.
“It’s been a lot of fun to watch Champ progress from last year to this year as a hitter,” Lee said. “He’s really turned himself into a force at the bottom of the order. He’s had some big at bats for us this year and he has a knack for getting a big hit when we’ve needed one. He’s driving in runs, he’s doing a great job of getting on base and giving the guys at the top of the order a chance to drive in some runs. It’s been a huge boost to our offense having that kind of production out of Champ.”
A year ago the Cougars team batting average was .255. This year, the Cougars have been one of the top hitting teams in the country with a .315 team average.
“When you’ve got one through eight hitting like they’ve been doing all seaosn, you kind of feel like you’ve got to produce as well,” Rowland said. “I’m trying to go up there and do my job, get on base and make good contact. But it’s easier when the guys ahead of you are hitting like they’ve been doing all season.”
Rowland said a slight adjustment in his swing by Cougars hitting coach Chris Morris and a new attitude at the plate have been keys for his production this season.
“We really didn’t change my swing a whole lot, but tweaked it a little bit, but it’s helped out a ton,” Rowland said. “I think I’m a little bit better mechanically too. I’m not throwing away at bats like I might have last year. Last year I would catch myself swinging at a lot of pitches I shouldn’t have. This year I’ve tried to be more selective and be a little more patient until I get my pitch to hit.”
And the defense? Rowland has a .920 fielding percentage.
“There are things that Champ does during games and during practices that are just unbelievable,” Lee said. “He’s fun to watch on defense. He’s got as strong an arm as everyone I’ve coached anywhere I’ve been.”
I’ve never had a shortstop that can throw like that he can. He’s got a Major League arm.”