Youth baseball: East building foundation for a powerhouse
GRANITE QUARRY — East Rowan High baseball coach Brian Hightower has high expectations.
East Rowan has been 81-53 with two conference championships and two runner-up finishes in the last five seasons, but Hightower, who coached juggernaut squads of Mustangs in 2008-10 and won a 3A state title, considers this a challenging time.
“We’ve been in a lull and we knew the lull was coming,” Hightower said. “We haven’t been as talented as we used to be, but kids have bought in to what we do, they’ve worked their tails off, and we’ve won our share of ballgames.”
The “lull,” if you want to call it that, figures to last a bit longer, even though it won’t be a surprise if pitcher John Owen and center fielder Chandler Blackwelder lead the Mustangs to 20 wins next spring. Blackwelder was merely good as a junior at East, but he’s been devastating offensively, defensively and on the bases this summer in American Legion ball.
And apparently a small army of Owens and Blackwelders are on the way.
“Our 8s, our 9s, our 10s, our 11s and our 12s playing Cal Ripken Baseball with East Rowan Diamond Sports are all really strong groups of kids,” Hightower said. “Five good groups in a row are coming, but I guess it’s not a surprise. This county has been good at baseball for a long time, and the East Rowan community loves baseball. It should be a fun ride when they get older.”
Hightower is closely tuned in to the wave of talent that’s coming his way because his own son, a shortstop named Cobb, is part of it.
That means he’s seen a lot of these youngsters grow and develop.
“The league called me up when Cobb was 6, asked me to get involved with East Diamond Sports, I got on the board, and then I got into coaching the kids,” Hightower said. “Cobb is a 5th-grader now and the guys he’s playing with are 6th or 7th graders. That team basically has been together since they were playing as 7s. I haven’t coached them every year, but I’ve coached them most years.”
Hightower said things got serious when Cobb and his teammates started playing 9-under travel ball.
“We played almost 100 games two years ago,” he said. “We got to where we could beat the Charlotte teams that played Cal Ripken and we could compete with the best in this state. The top program in North Carolina, the program we modeled ours after, has been West Raleigh.”
The East youngsters had another tremendous season in 2015, but they fell short of their ultimate goals.
“We played 94 games as 10s and we went 85-9,” Hightower said. “We’d won like 40 in a row when we went to the regional, but then we didn’t win the regional. I got some grief for that.”
Hightower tweaked his approach this year, playing a more demanding regular-season schedule with tougher tournament games against out-of-state teams. East’s record wasn’t as overwhelming — “75-20, something like that” — but this time the team was ready when it reached the regional in Williamsburg, Va.
“We didn’t spend as much time getting our pictures taken and eating the free meals,” Hightower said. “We took a more business-like approach this time. We went up there to win a championship.”
East went 3-1 in regional pool play, losing a close game to Atlantic Beach, a speedy team from the Jacksonville, Fla., area, but qualified for the Final Four.
Entering the Final Four as a No. 2 seed, East beat West Raleigh, 5-2, in the semifinals, and then beat Atlantic Beach, 6-3, in the final. That gave this group its first regional championship to go along with five area titles and three state crowns.
Hightower believes this is the first time a team representing Western North Carolina has won a Cal Ripken regional title. Unfortunately, there’s no Cal Ripken World Series for this age group this year.
“State championships are great, and we’ve won some, but to win a regional against a lot of great teams from Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, this is something out of the ordinary,” Hightower said. “Our kids celebrated when they won, and they should have. They knew they did something special. I’ve been in baseball 40 years, since I was 5 years old, and this is only the second time we’ve won that last one and brought a championship home.”
The other time Hightower won the last one was in 2010 when East Rowan High went 31-2 and won the state title.
Hightower didn’t want to single out any individual performances by his players in the regional.
“They were all unbelievable, 1 through 11, and when they’re all good, we’re a great team,” Hightower said. “Kids put the ball in play with two strikes. Our 10-hole hitter went 6-for-10 and walked four times. Our 7-hole guy hit a home run.”
The team East beat in its opener in pool play was Wilmington, N.C. One of the guys cheering for Wilmington was former major leaguer Trot Nixon, who had some big years and a great World Series (2004) for the Boston Red Sox.
Trot’s son, Luke, played shortstop for the Wilmington squad and hit a home run against East.
“That kid can play,” Hightower said. “Trot was a great guy. He came over and congratulated us and told us that we did a good job. He gave out some autographs.”
Trot, also has an older son, Chase, who was born on Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks. He’ll be a freshman at Wilmington’s New Hanover High this fall.
While the accomplishment by the East 11s is outstanding, they may have company soon. East’s 10-year-olds walloped Lawrenceburg, Tenn., 16-4, on Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn., and that team also is in the hunt for a regional title.
East’s 8s won the area and finished in the state’s top four. East’s 9s finished third in the area and qualified for the state tournament. East’s 12s were area runner-up and finished in the top four in the state.
As Hightower said, it could be a fun ride in a few years.