American Legion baseball: Hard-working Hill moves closer to his dream

Published 12:01 am Sunday, July 10, 2022

By Mike London

SALISBURY — It’s a hot summer Friday, and 18 teenagers have a date — with their baseball coaches and Newman Park.

American Legion baseball practice for Rowan County began at 5 p.m.  As the clock nears 7 p.m., they’re still going at it. Rundowns all over, but mostly between third base and home plate.

Rundown after rundown. Rowan County should never mess up a rundown.

Coaches get their points across. Make as few throws as possible. Make something happen chasing them back to third, not toward home. Absolute worst-case scenario should be a runner scrambling safely back to third. He should never, ever score.

There’s never a dull moment. The Rowan County outfielders provide crafty and quick base runners. Everyone sweats, especially the catchers. They’ve got gear on. There’s not much point to working on rundowns unless you simulate game conditions.

If you’re wondering how Rowan County could possibly be 28-7 and a division champion and winners of 13 in a row, well, this is as good an explanation as any. These guys (coaches and players) aren’t going to be outworked.

“We’ve had maybe six days off since the Legion season started in May,” said Rowan County third baseman Blake Hill, a rising senior at East Rowan. “We put in a lot of time every day, in our hitting groups and on defense. We don’t have another game until next Tuesday (home, second round of the Area III playoffs), and maybe some programs would be taking a few days off, but this is where we all want to be. We keep putting in the work, getting the reps. When the season started we weren’t that good, but we got better by being out here together. You can feel a team coming together, and this one has.”

For those wondering if American Legion baseball still has relevance, still has a place in the world, consider that the opportunity to play Legion ball this summer probably has changed the course of Hill’s life.

This summer has made him a college prospect. He leads Rowan County with 14 doubles and 40 RBIs.

RBIs are the only stat Hill cares about. RBIs mean a teammate scored. The object of the game is to score runs.

He’s gotten those 40 RBIs in a lot of ways. Doubles in the gap, singles through the hole, fly balls and ground balls with a runner at third and less than two outs.

“He’s really disappointed when he doesn’t get a hit with men on base,” Rowan head coach Jim Gantt said. “Not because he didn’t get a hit, but because he wanted to come through for his teammates.”

Hill passes the eye test. At 6 feet and 195 pounds, he’s sturdy and strong. He played safety for East Rowan football in 2021, but he’s grown some and will be a linebacker for the Mustangs this fall.

Baseball has been a big part of who Hill is since he was a 5-year-old Tee-baller.

As a travel-ball youngster in the eastern part of the county he benefited from outstanding coaching, mostly by former East Rowan head coach Brian Hightower. He played with future Division I players against top-flight  competition.

“Big advantage for me,” Hill said. “When I was 10, I was getting the level of coaching most people won’t get until high school.”

Hill came out for Legion ball in the summer of 2021, made the final roster as a backup infielder but didn’t play much and didn’t get to the plate much. His most memorable moment was getting a hit as a pinch-hitter in the state tournament.

As a junior in the spring of 2022 on a talented East Rowan team that went 25-5, Hill got some chances, but it never clicked for him. He was 3-for-23 with one double, so he didn’t do anything to force coach Brett Hatley to put his name on the regular lineup card. He struck out eight times. He walked once.

High school baseball can be tough on hitters. Two or three games a week and normally facing the two best pitchers an opposing program has to offer.

For most of the school season, the weather isn’t pleasant. Sitting for an hour or so and then pinch-hitting in 45-degree weather isn’t an easy job.

Legion conditions are a lot friendlier in a lot of ways. You see a wide variety of arms, not just aces. You’re playing five or six times a week, and you can find a groove at the plate.

And it’s 85 degrees.

Gantt was pleased when Hill came back out for the team this year. A lot of times guys sit the bench for a summer, and they’re done. The beach and the pools beckon, and after you’ve practiced hard for a summer and still sat, that cool water looks awfully good.

But Hill understands the beach isn’t going anywhere. But the clock is ticking as far as getting better at baseball.

“The thing about Blake Hill is he has the all the tools to be good and he really wants to be good,” Gantt said. “He’s developing. He understands it’s a process and he understands he doesn’t have it all figured out yet, but he’s always been willing to work at it. He’s responsible. He’s accountable.”

Hill said no one has tweaked his mechanics. The three East Rowan guys who play Legion are well-schooled and have the mechanics to hit.

Aiden Schenck hits. McCall Henderson hits.

The biggest change for Hill this summer simply has been his confidence level. Knowing he’s going to be swinging in the middle of the lineup, even after a night when he goes 0-for-3, is priceless mentally.

“Newman Park helps a lot too,” Hill said. “I’m really confident playing third base because you’re always going to get a good hop, and the new lights are a huge help. I’ve got astigmatism in my right eye, but everything looks really clear when we play here.”

Hill didn’t do much in the first few games, but Gantt kept sending him out there — and then it kicked in. He socked a triple in the May 29 game with Hickory, and he’s been hard to stop ever since. On June 3, he had a five-RBI game against Randolph County, and he was just getting warmed up.”

“Just getting the regular playing time, my confidence started building up,” Hill said. “About the fourth game, I started to feel good at the plate. It’s a good feeling having the confidence that you can help the team win.”

He’s made believers of all of his teammates.

“Blake has just torn Mooresville apart,” Rowan catcher Cameron Burleyson said, shaking his head. “But it’s not just Mooresville. He’s come through in a lot of big spots all season.”

Hill has 14 RBIs in the four games with Mooresville. Both of his homers were against Mooresville. He has no rational explanation. He insists he doesn’t hate Mooresville. It’s not personal.

” But sometimes you just sit there and wonder what Blake is going to do next,” Rowan catcher Matthew Connolly said with a laugh.

Hill may have the biggest cheering contingent of all the Rowan players. He’s made an impact on attendance and hot dog sales. Multiple generations of family members come to encourage him at every game.

“Great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, everybody,” Hill said. “They can fill up a section by themselves. I’ve had some good moments for them. It’s meant a lot to them — and to me.”

Rowan had a tough game with Stanly County last week and trailed most of the way. Hill got the go-ahead RBI in the fifth.

“Jackson Deal was at second base and I saw he got the steal sign, so I knew there would be a big hole on the left side when the third baseman went to cover the bag,” Hill said. “I was able to get one right through that hole.”

Hill has given Rowan an occasional relief stint on the mound, and he’s a pretty good pitcher, but his future is as a hitter.

“You look at the body he’s got, the power he’s got, and he could really excel down the road,” Gantt said. “He’s got things to learn about all the angles and throws at third base, but he’s getting there. He should have a future at third base or first base.”

Hill’s dream is to play college baseball. This summer has moved him a lot closer to making that a reality.

By 7:30 p.m. on Friday, even the coaches are relaxing in the clubhouse. Assistant coach Adam Patterson speaks proudly about his daughter (Cressley), one of the best hitters for the Rowan Little League 12U softball team. Gantt is equally proud of his daughter (Blakely). She plays for Rowan’s 10U team.

Even Hill has headed for the parking lot, but there’s still noise coming from the batting cage.

That’s where the catchers are. Connolly and Burleyson are still busy. They’re high school rivals in basketball as well as baseball, but this is Legion.

Legion summers are when everyone is on the same side.

Their friendship is constant. So are the line drives in the cage.

It’s Rowan County American Legion. It’s tradition. No one is going to outwork them.