College baseball: Hales coming home to play for Catawba

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 9, 2022

By Mike London

KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Cole Hales will be enrolled this fall at Catawba College and should provide a boost to the Indians in a number of ways.

“Catawba is a great place, and it doesn’t get any better than playing baseball for Coach (Jim) Gantt at Newman Park,” Hales said. “I’ve played for him before.”

It’s been assumed that this would happen eventually, as the Hales family has a multitude of ties with Catawba.

But it’s been one of those long strange trips. There have been several detours. COVID was a factor.

Now a seasoned 21-year-old with a lot of winning baseball under his belt, Hales could be an impact player for the Indians, who had a relatively down season (31-24) for a program that is often one of the best in the Southeast and in Division II.

Hales was still an unknown quantity when he committed to Coker University, a South Atlantic Conference school, prior to what turned out to be his monumental senior year for the Carson Cougars.

In that 2019 season, Hales enjoyed a breakthrough for a stout Carson team coached by Chris Cauble. Hales was in a two-way role, smacking 36 hits and winning 11 times on the mound while striking out 92 batters. He was the Patrick Snider Award winner as Rowan County Pitcher of the Year.

Hales kept it rolling as a .382 hitter with the Rowan County American Legion team in the summer of 2019. That’s when Rowan County Legion head coach/Catawba head coach Jim Gantt got to see Hales practice or play every day, and it was obvious to Gantt that Catawba, which doesn’t miss out on many local Division II players, had missed on Hales.

After a redshirt season at Coker, Hales transferred to Caldwell Tech, a rising junior college program directed by former Lenoir-Rhyne head coach Frank Pait.

COVID short-circuited the 2020 season for baseball players, but Hales got to suit up for Gantt on the NC3 team that replaced Legion ball that summer at Newman Park. Hales was devastating at the plate. He batted .437 with 34 RBIs in an abbreviated season.

Catawba had a backlog of talent for the 2021 season with a number of star seniors taking advantage of the universal COVID redshirt to play again.  There was no rush to add Hales, who continued to develop offensively and defensively at Caldwell Tech.

Hales was very solid as a regular for the Cobras in 2021 and he just kept getting better in 2022.  In Caldwell Tech’s recently completed campaign, Hales was the most consistent player on a talented team. He was voted Region 10 Player of the Year and helped fuel a history-making Caldwell season that included a 49-7 record and  a trip to the Division III World Series in Tennessee.

Caldwell Tech, which had eight Rowan players on the roster, finished third.

“Great experience for all of us and a lot of fun hanging out in a hotel with the guys,” Hales said. “And some good baseball was played. We saw really good arms in the World Series.”

For the season, Hales batted .358 with 22 extra-base hits and 46 RBIs. He ranked third nationally with 73 runs scored and fourth nationally with 45 walks. He was in the top 20 nationally in hits (71) and stolen bases (31).

“I’ve improved as a hitter in several ways since I played Legion ball,” Hales said. “With experience, you learn your zone, learn what pitches to take and which people you can handle. And I’ve gotten better at pitch recognition. I’m seeing the ball out of the pitcher’s hand quicker than I used to.”

The stolen bases were the biggest surprise on his stat sheet. Hales, who had a triple in the World Series, is not a blazer, but he’s an exceptional base runner.

“I’m still not the fastest guy, but I’ve trimmed down some, and I’m faster than I was in high school,” Hales said. “I’ve made steals an emphasis, and I’ve worked a lot with our coaches on getting big jumps. Steals are a lot more about reading pitchers and their moves, then just pure speed.”

Hales is playing wood bat baseball this summer for the Kingsport Axmen in the Appalachian Summer League. He plays third base, but there are still times when he goes to the mound to close games.

Third base figures to be his primary role for Catawba, but he also could help on the mound.

“I think of  myself as a third baseman now,” Hales said. “I’m pretty sure that’s where I’ll stay.”

Catawba assistant coach Curtis Owen scouted Hales back in the fall in a game in Hickory. When Hales finally got an official offer from the Indians, it didn’t take him long to say yes. He took the official visit, but it would be hard to show him a spot on campus he hasn’t seen before.

It’s been a Catawba family for generations.

Hales’ younger sister, Kary, played volleyball and softball for the Indians as a freshman. She led the softball team in just about everything, while batting a team-best .384.

Hales plans a sports management major.