East baseball preview

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 15, 2011

By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY — East Rowan has won 20 or more games five straight seasons — the first time any Rowan baseball program has accomplished that feat.
East won a county-record 31 games in 2010 (it lost just two) on its way to the 3A state title and a No. 21 ranking nationally. Seemingly, there’s only one direction to go in, but coach Brian Hightower is determined to keep the Mustangs on top.
“At least for the next couple of years, with the players we’ve got in the program, we should be successful,” Hightower said. “Our core of players is still very solid.”
Graduation hit hard. The Mustangs didn’t lose quantity, but they lost quality. Third baseman Noah Holmes (.480) was an All-American and shared county player of the year honors with South Rowan masher Maverick Miles.
Shortstop Preston Troutman was about as good an athlete as you’re going to see on a high school field, and his quickness will be missed.
Besides losing the left side of the infield and Chris Jacobs, who started some in the outfield, the Mustangs said goodbye to steady pitchers Parker Gobbel and Thomas Allen.
Gobbel and Allen combined for an 18-1 record, and their absence is the reason some people believe East can be dethroned this season.
“We don’t have that big ace this year,” Hightower admitted. “But Alex Bost and Bradley Robbins have had a pretty good taste of it, and we’ve still got Will Johnson.”
Bost and Robbins are juniors. Bost (2-0, 2.56) pitched most of his 132/3 innings late last season against powerful foes such as Mount Pleasant and Tuscola.
Robbins (2-1, 1.86 ERA) overpowered opponents at times, but there also were nights when the plate jumped around. He walked 16 in 261/3 innings.
“The big difference is last year we asked Alex and Bradley for three or four innings, and now we need five,” Hightower said.
Johnson, the ultimate closer, remains East’s ace in the hole. The rubber-armed senior southpaw has been a nightmare for hitters. He was called upon 21 times in 2010, and went 5-0 with an ERA of 0.72. His velocity doesn’t light up radar guns, but he has deception and control. He fanned 52 — while walking just seven.
“Will’s cool, he’s calm, and he’s not going to walk ’em,” Hightower said. “He gives our defense a chance to back him.”
Look for Johnson to wind up at Catawba, where coach Jim Gantt is more concerned about pitchers getting outs than radar gun readings.
Avery Rogers (1-0) will be the No. 3 starter. Lefty Curtis Ward and right-hander Jared Mathis will get innings.
Catching is a huge strength for the Mustangs. Wingate signee Luke Thomas returns for his senior year, and he’s exceptional offensively (five homers, 42 RBIs, .402) and defensively.
Hightower and pitching coach Brian Hatley make pregame suggestions, but they give Thomas lots of responsibility as far as calling pitches and working on hitters.
Junior Nathan Fulbright is a catcher by trade — and a good one — but as long as Thomas is around, he’ll play left field or serve as the DH.
Fulbright batted .352 with 14 walks and a whopping 13 HBPs. He’s on base all night.
Senior Will Sapp returns in center field. He was the MVP of the state tourney, starring with his bat and his glove.
Sapp hit .369 with 40 runs scored and 29 RBIs and made all sorts of highlight-film plays scooting up and down the bank at Staton Field. Sapp lacks ideal size (5-foot-10, 150 pounds), which explains why he hasn’t already signed, but he’ll be a steal for someone.
Junior right fielder Wesley LeRoy is a prototypical East outfielder — fast, aggressive and rocket-armed. He batted .300 last season after working his way into the lineup.
Jamey Blalock, another experienced outfielder, is recovering from shoulder surgery, but Hightower hopes he can contribute.
Mathis, who’s been battling back pain, and Gavin Wike are junior outfielders ready to step in if a starter falters.
The infield has a new look except for lefty first baseman Andy Austin, a junior bopper who is drawing major recruiting interest. Austin batted .355 with a team-high 34 RBIs as a sophomore.
Roby Holmes, the younger brother of Trey and Noah, backs up Austin.
“Roby swings it well,” Hightower said. “He’s just behind a really good player.”
Justin Morris (.319), last year’s second baseman, slides over to shortstop.
“He’s gotten faster and stronger and his arm strength has improved,” Hightower said. “He can handle it.”
Rogers, who played shortstop when Troutman pitched and saw some time in the outfield, will be the starting third baseman. He batted .286.
“Avery’s good defensively, very good on the backhand and good on the balls hit hard right at him,” Hightower said.
Chase Hathcock, one of last season’s jayvee stars, got varsity at-bats as a pinch hitter during the playoff run. Hightower is confident he can handle second base.
“Good hands,” Hightower said. “He can also play third.”
Infielder Ashton Fleming, a junior, is a talented hitter and usually will be the DH.
Finally, there’s Evan Hiatt, a fulltime track man and part-time baseball player.
“Evan’s a GPA booster,” Hightower said with a laugh. “He’s going to help us because he can fly. He’s our courtesy runner.”
If there are track meets and baseball games the same day, Hiatt will stick with track, but his wheels could wind up affecting a few tight ballgames for a program that always seeks every little edge.
Hightower entered the 2011 season with a 135-41 record at East, and his mark is 123-29 (winning 81 percent of the time) the last five seasons.
East’s schedule outside the NPC is challenging, so the Mustangs may lose more frequently this year, but they should be heard from when the calendar turns to May.
“This team hit the ground running with some of the best practices I’ve ever had,” Hightower said. “The kids know what’s expected of them.”
On paper, this is a very good team. Only time will tell if it becomes great. Thomas, Austin, Sapp, Morris, Fulbright and Johnson are givens, but the young hurlers still have to throw strikes.
“You go into each season wanting to be the best in your conference and your county,” Hightower said. “Beyond that, our expectations are as high as ever. We want to compete for a state championship.”