High school baseball: Cougars counting on Simmerson to lead the way
Published 12:01 am Thursday, March 9, 2023
Fifth in a series of reports on local baseball teams …
By Mike London
CHINA GROVE — Carson pitchers struck out 17 batters on opening night.
That sounds crazy in seven-inning high school baseball, but that could happen quite a bit this season.
The Cougars have pitching. They won’t have the offensive firepower of East Rowan, but Carson has the experienced arms to compete for the South Piedmont Conference championship.
Righties and lefties. Starters and relievers. Fireballers and finesse guys.
In charge of those arms will be Kyle Bridges, the former Carson first baseman, who is in his first season as a varsity head coach. He follows a legend — Chris Cauble, who coached a county record 411 wins at West Rowan and Carson. When this season began, Cauble had coached all of Carson’s 275 baseball victories.
Bridges will get assistance with handling the staff from Jesse Park, who once starred on the mound for the Cougars.
Catawba signee Hayden Simmerson is expected to be the marquee attraction for the Cougars. He’s a terrific, two-way player.
In a normal 2022 season — South Rowan and East Rowan were a long way above normal in 2022 — Simmerson could have been the Rowan County Player of the Year. He led an 18-11 Carson team in just about everything — hits (32), runs (20), RBIs (19), doubles (15), batting (.360), wins (6), ERA (1.36) and strikeouts (117). He tied for the team lead in triples (2).
“Hayden has a dominant fastball — he can touch 91, but he usually works in the high 80s — and a really good slider,” Bridges said. “His first game this season was four innings, 11 strikeouts, one hit allowed. We’re counting on him.”
Simmerson is already second in school history in career strikeouts (behind Owen White). He entered this season with 162.
The plan is for Simmerson to play first base or serve as the DH when he’s not on the mound. That will tax his arm less than playing shortstop or third base between starts.
The No. 2 pitcher is Mikey Beasley (5-0 in 2022). He’s a smart, low-80s lefty who throws strikes and keeps hitters off balance.
“His off-speed stuff is so good it makes his fastball look a lot quicker,” Bridges said.
Casey Crawford, a big southpaw who went 4-4 last spring, probably will be used mostly as a reliever and could close a lot of wins.
“Casey is another low-8os guy, but he’s got lefty movement and he gets swings and misses and ground balls,” Bridges said. “Mikey seems to be do better as a starter, and Casey seems to work better out of the bullpen, so that’s how we’re looking at their roles.”
Emory Taylor, an exceptional athlete who also plays football and basketball, normally will be the third baseman when Simmerson or Beasley starts, but he’s also an outfield option and the fourth pitcher. He’ll probably be on the mound to start a lot of the non-conference games.
Taylor and Beasley are headed to Surry Community College.
Carson is also in great shape at catcher. Cameron Burleyson is a Catawba signee.
Burleyson swings the bat well enough, but he’s probably at his best on defense and handling the pitching staff.
“He’s about as good as they come behind the plate and he’s a team leader,” Bridges said. “He’s one of those guys everyone likes and respects. When he has something to say, they’re going to listen.”
Carson has some line-drive bats that aren’t household names yet, but they have experience, they’re still young and they could have breakout seasons. That group includes shortstop Daxton Savage, sure-handed second baseman Jacob Efird and left fielder Austin Efird. The Efirds are twins.
Cody Russell will handle first base quite a bit, while Will Bradshaw will get at-bats at third base. Their roles probably will fluctuate depending on who is pitching that day.
Keegan Barger is a defensive anchor in center field.
“Keegan is about as fast as anyone I’ve seen in high school,” Bridges said. “He can fly and he can go get it.”
Taylor can play some in right field. Daniel Savage, Daxton’s brother, is the other potential right fielder.
Other guys to keep an eye on are second baseman Nick Ayash and first baseman Drew Young.
It stacks up as a solid team, one of those pesky pitching, speed and defense teams that Carson frequently had under Cauble’s leadership.
“We think we’ll have a good team,” Bridges said. “We drew up a very tough non-conference schedule, so we may lose some games early, but it’s the best way to prepare for our conference. The South Piedmont is a great baseball conference. Just about everyone in this league can put an arm on the hill good enough to beat you.”
Carson baseball at a glance
Coach: Kyle Bridges (1st season)
Players to watch: Pitcher Hayden Simmerson, catcher Cameron Burleyson, versatile Emory Taylor
2022 record: 18-11 overall, 8-6 SPC
2023 record: 1-2
Conference regular-season championships (4): 2013, 2018, 2019, 2021