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As his UCSB college career is winding down, things are looking up for Thomas Rowan 

The 2014 Santa Ynez High School graduate hit two home runs in last Tuesday’s 9-4 non-conference victory over Pepperdine for the 14th ranked, Big West Conference leading UCSB Gauchos baseball team (41-7 at the time of this writing).

At press time, UCSB had a two game lead over Cal Poly with six games left in the regular season — three over the weekend at Hawaii before closing out the season with a three-game home stand against Cal Poly.

For the season, Rowan is batting .335 with 12 home runs, 13 doubles, two triples with 41 runs batted in while playing in all 48 of the Gauchos’ games at either catcher or designated hitter.

“I’ve gotten lucky a little bit,” said Rowan.

It’s a dream season, actually his second in a row, which could end with his selection in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft (June 3-5).

After struggling his first two years while working his way back from injury, Rowan had a breakout year in 2018, batting .312 (tied for team high) on the year and .366 in conference games with four home runs, 20 runs batted in and a team-high 12 doubles to earn All-Conference Honorable Mention honors.

But before the 23-year old red shirt senior could achieve this dream, he had to live through a nightmare.

That began in 2014, during the spring of Rowan’s senior year at Santa Ynez High.

Rowan was a four-year varsity player for the Pirates — a star pitcher, catcher and third baseman — leading the team to the CIF Southern Section quarterfinals his junior year.

He was being eyed by several major league teams and there was a strong possibility that he’d be chosen in one of the early rounds of the MLB draft.

That all changed in the first game of his senior year in a game at Arroyo Grande High.

“Tommy was our starting pitcher and he felt something pop,” said his SYHS high school coach Warren Dickey. “He had a torn ligament in his right (pitching) arm and had to undergo Tommy John surgery.”

That was the year the Pirates went 29-1, winning the CIF Southern Section Division 5 championship.

“He was on track to get drafted and to get hurt in that first game was a tragedy,” said Dickey. “But he stayed with us. Even though his senior year was taken away, he stayed the course. He led by example. He didn’t miss one practice or one game. He was our unofficial pitching coach — he called all the pitches. It was an unbelievable story of character.”

The injury not only cost him a shot at the Major League Baseball draft, it also cost him a scholarship opportunity to his dream school, UCSB.

“I always wanted to be a Gaucho. I went to a lot of their game as a little kid. It’s close to home and my family could see me play,” said Rowan. “(UCSB head coach) Andrew Checkette offered me the chance to be a recruited walk-on and then I spent my freshman year as a medical red shirt while I continued to rehab from my injury.”

Rowan played sparingly the next two seasons before cracking the lineup with his breakthrough season last year.

Coach Checkette rewarded Rowan by switching him from a recruited walk-on to a full scholarship player.

“He worked his way into a full scholarship — worked hard,” said Dickey. “I think he’s playing more relaxed this year. He probably should have been drafted last year but wasn’t and coach Checkette asked him to play one more year and now everything is coming up roses. Hopefully, the team will make it to the College World Series this year. It’s been a great senior year for him — a great story, great story.”

Rowan still had one year of eligibility left but could have opted out of his final season. He graduated with a degree in political science at the end of the fall semester.

“My favorite memory at UCSB was in the 2016 College World Series,” said Rowan. “We were down 3-0 to Louisville (in the Super Regionals) in the bottom of the ninth and Ben Cohen hit a walk-off grand slam. Everybody was going crazy on the field, jumping around like little kids. That was a dream come true.”

The slam powered the Gauchos to Omaha for the CWS championships.

“Playing in Omaha in front of 28,000 fans — that was definitely the best moment I’ve had,” said Rowan. “But the highlight of my career was when we won the CIF championship. Even though I couldn’t play, just being with my teammates was special. Just working with Coach Dickey was special. He’s like a second dad.”

“He’s too kind,” said Dickey. “I am so proud of him — you have no idea. There are players that come through your program that can touch your life. He’s one of them. His influence on Santa Ynez High School is going to be felt for a long time. Everybody is rooting for him. He’s got the whole valley on his side. He’s just a nugget.”

“I am so thankful for my family (mom Mary, dad Patrick and older brother Sean), the people at Santa Ynez High and the people in the valley for helping me along the way,” said Rowan.

There is another benefit to having graduated early from UCSB.

“I don’t have any classes this semester. I just have to show up on the field every day,” said Rowan. “I don’t know what my future will be. I am hoping for a shot in the baseball draft but I know whatever happens, it won’t be my only option.”

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Senior Sports Reporter

Elliott Stern has worked at Lee Central Coast Newspapers for the last 18 years after more than 30 years working in television and radio news and sports.