Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 30, 2007
By Mike London
A foul ball skips wide of third base at Staton Field, and a hyper guy perched on a pickle bucket makes a headlong dive to knock it down with straining, outstretched fingers.
The guy giving up his body is intense East Rowan baseball coach Brian Hightower.
Hightower would block the plate on Prince Fielder. He’d stick an elbow into a Billy Wagner fastball to get on base. He’d take a Barry Bonds liner off his forehead to get an out.
Hightower’s energy level is over the top, but there’s nothing phony about it. Passion for the pastime runs through his bloodstream straight to his soul.
His 2-year-old son is named Charles Cobb Hightower. Charlie already can hold up two fingers to indicate Derek Jeter’s jersey number. His vocabulary is limited, but he can verbalize that “Ross” ó East catcher Ross Steedley óis his favorite player. Ask Charlie what Ross wears, and he quickly responds ó “a mask.”
Hightower and his wife, Addie, may have the kid reciting the American League East standings before he turns 3, and Hightower’s passion for the diamond also rubs off on his teenage pupils.
Mustangs dive for grounders, throw to the right bases, run out popups, play the game in a fun-to-watch, old-school sort of way.
Choosing a Rowan County Coach of the Year is never easy. Hightower, who had the best record (20-8) and strongest team, gets the nod for the second straight year. When the six county head coaches were polled, their votes were split five ways. Hightower was the only coach receiving multiple votes from his peers.
No coach in the county won a championship, but all six squeezed extra wins from their players.
Entering the season with the highest hopes were Hightower’s Mustangs and Bobby Byerly’s Cavaliers.
Injuries gnawed at North.
Byerly got zero wins from his projected 1-2 pitching punch of Keegan Linza and Tanner Brown. He kept chugging, got fantastic production out of Jason Ridenhour and managed 15 wins. Had North beaten Ledford in the CCC tournament final, Byerly may well have been Coach of the Year.
Hightower had his own obstacles to hurdle.
He lost Trey Holmes’ left arm for the season on a slide into third base at Davie. In that same disastrous game, he lost Justin Roland, his shortstop, closer and offensive catalyst, for an extended period. Hard-hitting Micah Jarrett showed up at Rich Park on that ill-fated night wearing a cast on his wrist. The moon must have been full.
“Brian lost his two stud pitchers from last year (Cy Young and Craige Lyerly), then he loses Holmes,” South coach Linn Williams said. “At that point, strong as our league was, I don’t think very many people saw East winning 20 games.”
But the Mustangs were one of four 20-game winners in the CPC. East tied North Davidson for second place, and there was no shame in that. North Davidson reached the 4A Western championship series.
South’s Williams and Salisbury’s Scott Maddox were paddling the same canoe. Neither had an experienced pitcher.
Williams still coached 11 wins, and the Raiders were a robust 6-2 in games against county rivals.
Maddox’s Hornets registered a 13-14 mark. Salisbury tied for fourth in the CCC but reached the third round of the 2A playoffs and was still playing after everyone else in the county had packed up.
While Maddox and Williams searched for pitchers, Carson’s Chris Cauble built a program from the ground up. Carson’s nine overall wins were the fewest of any county team, but eight were in the NPC. That gave the Cougars third place.The NPC wasn’t as stout as usual, but leading a first-year school to the playoffs was one more feather in Cauble’s cap.
David Wright, who followed Cauble at West, won 15 games and finished second. He did it with magic dust and Weston Church.
In its last eight outings, West was 6-2, and both losses were to conference champs. Wright’s guys kept improving, the best measure of a coach.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the choice of Hightower. East was 8-2 against county rivals, split four games with a tough Davie squad and beat North Davidson once.
Hightower, who also coached East to 20 wins in 2006, tried to tone down his fiery nature in his third season in Granite Quarry.
“He promised us he wouldn’t get thrown out any,” Steedley said with a grin. “And he didn’t.”
But Hightower’s frustration nearly boiled over when North Davidson’s super southpaw Zach White dominated East in late March. Holmes was still out of the lineup, Roland couldn’t grip a bat, and Jarrett was grimacing on every swing. Fifteen Mustangs whiffed. It was ugly.
“I can only take so much, so I’m gonna have to get myself thrown out after all,” Hightower informed his team after the game.
The Mustangs responded in their next outing. Like nine Rocky Balboas, they crawled off the mat after Davie scored eight runs in the fifth inning to take a 9-3 lead and send most of the crowd home. D.C. Cranford hit two late grand slams to lead a stirring 13-9 victory, and East showed it would be an upper-tier team in the CPC.
The Mustangs never were 100 percent physically, but they got healthier in April and May and finished strong.
As for Hightower, win, lose or draw, he was still using his pickle bucket as a trampoline.
“He’s just a great coach,” Steedley said. “Playing three years for him has been a blast.”
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.