Baseball Coach of the Year: East Rowan’s Brian Hightower
By Mike London
Catawba and Rowan County American Legion coach Jim Gantt produced the best quote regarding East Rowan coach Brian Hightower.
Well, at least the best printable quote.
“Brian was 5-foot-8, played 6-foot-8 and thought he was 7-8,” said Gantt, a Catawba assistant coach when Hightower played at Newman Park in the early 1990s.
Hightower, a first team All-SAC second baseman in 1993, played with passion and confidence. Now he coaches with passion and confidence and has guided East’s return to a dominant position in Rowan County baseball.
Hightower, who led the Mustangs to a 29-5 season, has been named Rowan County Coach of the Year for the third straight time. The last coach to win three straight awards was East’s Jeff Safrit, who shared the honor in 1991 and was sole winner from 1992-95.
As he does every year, Hightower downplayed his impact. He praised assistant coaches Brian Hatley and John McNeil and insists his 3-year-old son, Cobb, could have coached the talented Mustangs.
“You’re only as good as your players,” Hightower said. “In fall ball, these guys coached themselves and won. They were a special team ó special form 1-17.”
Justin Roland, Micah Jarrett and Corbin Shive, you already know about.
But the Mustangs also had an abundance of that corny all-for-one and one-for-all stuff.
When backup catcher Casey Little got hurt, backup third baseman Matt Miller volunteered to catch bullpens and warm up relievers. Whatever it took, from 1 to 17.
Hightower knew East would be very good this season, and the team set seven lofty goals.
It went 6-for-7, reaching all the statistical offensive and defensive goals and winning everything there was to win except the last game in the 3A state championship series.
This East team will be remembered as a comeback team.
Down four runs in the seventh inning of the fourth round of the playoffs, the Mustangs rallied to beat Mooresville.
Down 1-0 in the Western championship series with South Point, East rallied.
Down 1-0 in the state championship series with Rocky Mount, East came back one more time. The Mustangs were one hit, one pitch, one break, one call from winning it all.
East will also be remembered as the team that went 18-0 in league play. That mark appears to be unprecedented in the county.
The NPC was a pretty good league too. East had to beat NPC teams in the third and fourth round of the playoffs.
“At Catawba, I was fortunate enough to play on the ’92 team that was 21-0 in the SAC, and that run hasn’t been repeated,” Hightower said. “This year’s 18-0? Fifteen years from now when we look back, that might not be repeated either.”
Hightower’s competition for Coach of the Year was even stiffer than usual.
In a normal year, West’s David Wright would have won hands down. West started 1-5 and looked awful. It finished 15-11 and was a completely different team in May than March.
Salisbury’s Scott Maddox shared the CCC championship ó the first regular-season banner in 24 years ó and won 17 games.
South’s Linn Williams went out on high note with a 16-9 team that stood 15-4 before pitching wore down and hits stopped falling.
Carson coach Chris Cauble had his team in the playoff hunt down to the last day of the regular season. The Cougars won their finale, but they were done in by one of those unfortunate three-team tiebreakers.
North didn’t have the talent level it’s enjoyed for many years, but coach Rob Linder’s team never tossed in the towel and earned an improbable victory over Salisbury late in the season.
Still, it’s hard to argue with honoring Hightower.
East matched the county record of 29 wins posted by East’s 1995 state champs and West’s 2004 runner-up team.
Hightower’s roots go back to Milton High, a perennial baseball powerhouse near Atlanta.
After his playing days at Newman Park, he was a volunteer coach for two years at Catawba before taking over the Statesville program in 1998.
He coached the Greyhounds seven years, before being hired at East for the 2003-04 school year. In four seasons in Granite Quarry, his teams are 81-34.
Hightower figures East is the best high school coaching job in the world. The talent flow from the strong Little League program and from Erwin Middle is steady.
“This is a dream high school coaching job, and I wouldn’t leave here for any other,” Hightower said. “I hope to be here another 18 years ó if I don’t screw things up.”
Eighteen more Coach of the Year awards?
Don’t rule it out. Hightower is 5-8, but he coaches like he’s 7-8.
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or email@example.com.