High school baseball: Two-way players Johnson, Harris will lead Cavaliers

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 26, 2023

Second in a series of high school baseball reports.

By Mike London


SPENCER — The rebuild is officially under way at North Rowan, and young baseball coach/AD Zachary Tatarka can see light at the end of the tunnel.

North played only two games before COVID shut down the 2020 season. Then the Cavaliers were 0-8 in the delayed 2021 mini-season.

For a while, there were fears that the baseball program might not be able to find enough bodies to survive, so Tatarka’s first season in 2022 — 4-14, with three 1A/2A Central Carolina Conference wins — had to be viewed as a success. While it wasn’t a strong team, the Cavaliers competed and created a foundation for future winners.

Tatarka has brought stability after North went through five different head coaches in a six-year stretch. Now the talk isn’t about surviving, it’s about getting better and making the 1A playoffs.

To do that, North has to finish ahead of the other two 1A schools in the league. That’s Thomasville and South Davidson. North split with Thomasville last season and lost 11-9, 17-7 and 6-5 (in the conference tournament) to South Davidson.

“We want to win them all, but those four games with South Davidson and Thomasville are the ones I’ve got circled,” Tatarka said. “Those four are the key to getting this program back in the playoffs. Two of the South Davidson games could’ve gone either way last season. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”

Tatarka is confident North is better now than it was in 2022, so doubling the wins  total and getting that playoff spot are realistic goals.

North was a lot better than Lexington last season, outscoring the Yellow Jackets 26-0 in a sweep. Competing with the other 2As in the league would be the next step to take. That’s East Davidson, West Davidson and rival Salisbury. North fared well in a preseason scrimmage with Salisbury at Newman Park. That boosted confidence and expectations.

The subtractions from last season’s squad include lefty Joseph Hartman, who had two wins and logged lots of innings. Also missing are left fielder Dylan Bates, who had two humongous offensive games in wins against Lexington and Thomasville, and center fielder Zion Milton, who ran some balls down.

But the Cavaliers appear to have adequate replacements for the graduates. They have a good freshman class.

“I think we’ll have a pretty good baseball team, and I can see a difference in our confidence level just when our guys are walking out to the field,” Tatarka said.

North was 0-4 against Salisbury in 2022 and didn’t come close in either outing against West Davidson or East Davidson, so there’s a wide gulf to make up to catch the league’s top teams.

But North returns its top two players. That’s a good start. Malakie Harris and Trey Johnson spent their summer with the Rowan County American Legion team, picking up new baseball skills to add to solid athletic ability. Johnson has speed, while Harris has a stout right arm and power.

Johnson batted .467 for the Cavaliers in 2022, leading the team in hits (21) and triples (3).

Harris hits tape-measure shots every day in BP and he has hit a few balls out of sight in games. He led North in homers (3), doubles (6) and RBIs (13).

Harris is a third baseman, while Johnson is a shortstop. Tatarka likes what both of them bring to the infield.

Harris and Johnson also will be North’s No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers. Johnson gets ground balls and earned a save last season. Harris was credited with two wins, including a no-hitter. He throws hard enough to get strikeouts. He had 10 in a game with South Davidson.

“They both benefited greatly from Legion and they’ve come a long way in two years,” Tatarka said. “With Johnson, there’s been a night and day transformation. Those two were good for us last year and they’ll be better this year.”

North also returns veteran catcher Breadon Castor. He has a strong enough arm to pitch, but the Cavaliers will need him behind the plate.

“He’s a three-year starter,” Tatarka said. “He throws very well and he’s improved a lot as far as blocking and receiving.”

Isaiah Montgomery was the starting right fielder last season and returns.

Infielder Jaiden Burch is back. He could play second base, and he likely will handle third base when Harris is on the mound.

Most of the others that Tatarka is counting on heavily are newcomers.

Alex Prandini, a transfer from California, has impressed Tatarka with his lively arm and is expected to be the left fielder.

Freshman Jaiden Brown, a jayvee football receiver, has a lot of speed and probably will take over in center field.

Freshman Brayden Mahaley has good size and a good bat and will play first base. He’ll also add to the pitching depth.

Another newcomer, Carter Boydston, has been impressive with his versatility.

“He could be a big key to this program,” Tatarka said. “He can pitch, he can hit, and he can field. We could plug him in just about anywhere.”

North baseball at a glance

Coach: Zachary Tatarka (3rd season, 4-22)

Players to watch: Malakie Harris, Trey Johnson, Breadon Castor

Key additions: Good freshman class

2022 record: 4-14

Opening day:  Feb. 28, home against Gray Stone

Conference regular-season championships (9) — 1976, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2011, 2016