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Stinger star comes from humble beginnings

Willmar's Mitch Rowan makes contact for his second hit against the Mankato MoonDogs on Aug. 4 at Bill Taunton Stadium. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton.

In a season with the Willmar Stingers contending down to the wire in the second half of the Northwoods League season, the catalyst atop the lineup has been outfielder Mitch Rowan.

The Stinger leadoff hitter's .315 batting average is the third-highest on the team and he trails only Sean Dwyer and Jason Leblebijian in games played. His 21 stolen bases also ranks third in the league.

But unlike other top players in the league, Rowan comes from humbler beginnings.

In a league full of players from top NCAA Division I programs, the Cotati, Calif., native plays his college ball at Willamette University, an NCAA Division III school.

Willamette is a small private school in Salem, Ore., with a student population of about 2,600.

"A lot of people have never heard of my school (and) can't pronounce it," Rowan said. "Nobody knows where it's at."

Rowan said he chose Willamette to take advantage of the academics and for the opportunity to play two sports - he's also a punter and kicker on the Bearcats' football team.

He wound up in Willmar this summer after being coached by Stingers' manager Matt Hollod his freshman year at Willamette.

"I knew he was a good talent," Hollod said. "He was a little up and down (early this year) but he's really turned into one of our most consistent players.

In his three seasons at Willamette, Rowan has a career batting average of .362. He earned first-team All-Northwest Conference honors his sophomore year after hitting .403 with 12 home runs and 13 stolen bases.

Stingers' co-owner Ryan Voz has been impressed with what Rowan has brought to the team.

"He's a gamer. What's fun about him is he's a baseball dirtbag," Voz said. "He plays the game hard and when he gets on base he can make things happen."

Rowan came to the Stingers as a risk not only being from such a small program but also because he was coming off a major injury.

He broke his thumb diving for a ball in the outfield six games into Willamette's 2011 season. Rowan played in the game the next day but then missed the rest of the season.

"We didn't know whether he'd be ready or not," Voz said. "(But) he was here, reported on time and was starting in our outfield opening day."

Hollod said there are questions when taking a player out of a small school but that Rowan has exceeded them.

"Any time you take a chance with a D-III player, you're concerned with how that's going to equate with this league," Hollod said. "He's been a pleasant surprise."

Rowan said he plans to take advantage of his fifth year of eligibility to play in graduate school where he'll pursue a degree in exercise science, but that he'd like to return to the Stingers next year.

"I'd definitely like to come back," he said. "The summer's kind of flown by."

Ben Brewster

Ben Brewster covers the Willmar Stingers and other area sports, as well as laying out the daily sports section cover for the West Central Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @benbrewster.

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