Prep baseball: East has arms, hopes bats will emerge

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 5, 2018

By Mike London

Last year: 16-11 overall (lost 2nd round of 3A playoffs), 11-7 South Piedmont Conference (5th place)

This year: North Piedmont Conference

Coach: Brian Hightower (14th year at East, 251-113)

GRANITE QUARRY—Coach Brian Hightower has experienced only one losing season since he came to East Rowan, and the Mustangs are certain to have another good baseball team.

“I’m not saying we’re going to set the world on fire,” Hightower said. “But I really do like my guys. They’ve really worked since last season. They’ve gotten better.”

East hasn’t missed out on the 3A state playoffs since 2005. There was a state runner-up finish in 2008 and a state title in 2010. There’s been a long history of success at Staton Field, although things have been quieter lately. East has only won 20 games once in the last seven years and hasn’t made it past the third round of the playoffs since the state-title days. Last year’s fifth-place conference finish was the lowest ever for Hightower.

While there’s been a slight dip in recent years, there’s a baseball storm brewing in the eastern part of the county. Hightower has four straight strong classes coming— starting with this year’s freshmen — and the Mustangs may be headed back to the top of the county — and the state —  in the near future.

A team of future Mustangs played Sunday in Greensboro, belted six homers and scored 18 runs. Help is on the way.

As far as the present, East figures to be chasing Carson and West Rowan one more time, but it’s going to be a close race. Those three are likely to finish 1-2-3, in some order, in their new league — the six-team North Piedmont Conference.

East no longer has two marquee players. Pitcher/hitter John Owen and slugger Chandler Blackwelder moved on to the college ranks after stellar careers. That leaves Hayden Setzer, a 6-foot-3 lefty pitcher/center fielder as East’s brightest star. Setzer batted .342 with 15 RBIs last season and he was 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA on the mound. The younger brother of Catawba star Luke Setzer, Hayden also will play at Catawba.

“Hayden has a ton of upside,” Hightower said. “He’ll be our ace on the mound and when he’s not pitching he’ll be in center field. He’ll be our leadoff man and we’re counting on him for a great on-base percentage and a lot of hits. We just need him to do what he’s capable of doing.”

East will be strongest on the mound. After Setzer, there’s Will Brown. The senior blossomed as a hurler in American Legion ball last summer.

Sophomore lefty Jake Davis (2-2 as varsity freshman) is going to be really good. It’s a matter of when, not if.

Senior submariner Corbin Moss (1-1) will the regular first baseman, but he’ll also pitch some. When Moss pitches, Setzer may  move from center to first base.

Two important East pitchers are freshmen. Jake Hunter pitched shutout relief for 2 1/3 innings and struck out five against Lake Norman on Friday. Lake Norman is ranked No. 1 in 4A.

The plan is for freshman JD Basinger to split time between jayvee and varsity this season. He threw in Friday’s jayvee game at Lake Norman and logged four scoreless innings.

“We’ve got arms, really good young arms,” Hightower said. “We don’t have as much range on defense as we’ve had some years, but I still think our defense will be good enough.”

In the varsity game with Lake Norman, East was the victim of a perfect game by Lake Norman hurler Justin Jarvis and lost, 5-0.

“Tip your hat to a great pitcher and all that, but getting perfect-gamed was still embarrassing,” Hightower said. “We were swinging the bats, we were aggressive, but we were just late. Fortunately, we won’t face an arm like that every night. I really think we can hit OK. We hit well in the scrimmages.”

Hitting will be a question mark until proven otherwise as East’s offense in 2017 was basically Blackwelder, Owen and Setzer. East hit .272 last season, but that was inflated by Blackwelder and Owen’s terrific numbers. Mustangs other than Blackwelder and Owen batted a collective .238.

While there aren’t any guys with large offensive numbers returning, East will have experience all over the field. Moss drove in 14 runs last season. Bryson Wagner, who is moving from third base to shortstop, batted .247 and drove in seven. Second baseman Matt Mathis batted .281 with nine RBIs. Jax Fitz. who gets on base on almost half his plate appearances, will play third base.

Brown will be in right field, but he’ll switch to center when Setzer pitches. Charlie Klingler, the backup catcher, will play right field when Brown is in center or on the mound. Wayne Mize and Davis will share at-bats in left field. Davis has more range with the glove, but Mize swings a strong bat.

Trevor Scruggs is East’s best defensive catcher, so he’ll be behind the plate most of the time.

Sophomore pitcher/third baseman Blake White and junior first baseman Avery Shull will get opportunities.

East has five seniors on a 14-man roster in Setzer, Mathis, Brown, Scruggs and Moss.

“All five are playing — they’ll get their chances,” Hightower said.

East’s schedule is challenging. The Mustangs go to Cox Mill tonight to play against former East assistant John McNeil, who is now the head coach of the Chargers. East will make a beach trip this weekend to take on Wilmington Laney and Topsail, coached by former North Rowan coach Aaron Rimer. East also takes on powerhouse North Davidson and 4As South Meck and Davie County.

There’s a non-conference meeting with South Rowan — always a grinder – and, of course, East will be in showdowns with rivals Carson and West Rowan in its four biggest games of the season.

East hosts both Carson and West in a relatively early four-day stretch (March 20-23) that will tell everyone a lot about the Mustangs.

“It’s sort of a ridiculous schedule, it really it is,”  Hightower said. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”