Prep Baseball: East Rowan preview

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 2, 2012

By Ryan Bisesi
GRANITE QUARRY — East Rowan went 19-8 last season, a good year by most any measure except for when it encores a state championship.
In 2012, the Mustangs can re-attain a state championship pedigree with experience. The roster boasts 10 seniors and prides itself on pitching and defense, the tools that built the East empire. That and eighth-year coach Brian Hightower, who aims to get his club back to the level it was two years ago.
“I feel like we can pitch it and defend it as well as anybody,” Hightower said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. That’s always our theme.”
East has won the North Piedmont Conference three of the last four seasons. The Mustangs beat West Iredell 1-0 in the tournament title game last year after battling WI for first much of the regular season. All-County players Justin Morris, Luke Thomas, Avery Rogers, Will Johnson and Will Sapp are gone but the Mustangs’ swagger remains.
“We still like to think of ourselves as the team to beat in the conference,” Hightower said. “We’ve got to go out and prove it.”
First baseman Andy Austin returns, as does catcher Nathan Fulbright. Austin, a UNC Wilmington signee, was second on the team in average last year at .410 while Fulbright hit a team-best five homers and carries the most important job of anyone in taking care of the pitching staff.
Hightower looks for Fulbright to have a big senior year before departing for Guilford.
“He’s busted his rear end in the weight room,” Hightower said. “He’s a great kid.”
On the mound, it’s no secret East will be led by Tallahassee Community College signee Bradley Robbins.
Robbins is the staff ace that carried a 10-1 record, a 1.01 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 621/3 innings last year. This season, the senior right-hander could start a Tuesday game and close out one on Friday.
“As far as East Rowan goes, it still comes to quality arms,” Hightower said. “I look for us to be 5, 6 deep.”
Robbins, the inaugural Patrick Snider Memorial Award winner carries a great fastball and a good slider.
“We’re going to be led by Bradley,” Hightower said. “We’ve got three main starters and we can plug the other guys in there when we need them.”
Right-handers Alex Bost and Jared Mathis will also be counted upon on the mound. Bost had 35 strikeouts in 30 innings last year and Mathis brings back a 2-1 record and 151/3 innings of experience. Sophomore Connor Johnson is back after an impressive freshman season in which he posted a 1.14 ERA and struck out 47. Six-foot-three righty Josh Gobble and lefty Curtis Ward will eat up innings.
In the infield, Surry Community College signee Ashton Fleming moves over from second base to shortstop. Fleming hit .350 and drove in 25 runs in 2011. The lefty will be the leadoff hitter.
“He’s definitely got the arm to play short,” Hightower said. “He can really make the plays in the hole.”
Returnee Chase Hathcock will play second and looks to turn several double plays with Fleming. Hathcock’s versatility allows him to do a number of things, including hit and run, drive in runs and bunt and will likely hit early in the lineup. Junior Bryson Null will back up Hathcock.
“Hathcock’s probably the hardest working kid in our program,” Hightower said. “He’s improved his arm and can turn the double play pretty easily.”
Junior Hunter Brooks comes up from jayvee and a solid junior legion season to play third base. Hightower says he plans to plug Brooks in the 6-7 hole in the lineup.
In the outfield, Roby Holmes will start in left field to try and channel brother Trey’s success.
Johnson and Dalton Moose are speedy guys slated for time in center field. Mathis will fill the right field spot when not pitching and he’ll hit in the 5-hole. Hightower likens Mathis’ swing to Paul Molitor’s.
“It’s just simple, sweet and to the point,” Hightower said. “He’s a good outfielder and he’s got a good arm.”
Robbins will play in the outfield and DH when not on the mound.
“I don’t think people realize what a good athlete [Robbins] is,” Hightower said. “He’s an option we can put out there.”
Senior Gavin Wike will also see time in the outfield.
Six-foot-2 Hunter Poston will back up Austin at first. Madison Hedrick will be bullpen catcher and back up Fulbright.
As usual, East has peppered its schedule with stout teams such as Davie County, Providence, Kernersville Glenn and Nova from Davie, Fla. East won its season opener Tuesday in a 13-5 triumph against R.J. Reynolds. Mathis pitched two scoreless frames and Ward mowed down two batters.

NOTE: East is scheduled to face Davie County tonight at 7 p.m. in Mocksville. It was switched from the afternoon.