High school baseball: Growing pains for rebuilding South team

Published 12:01 am Thursday, March 16, 2023

By Mike London

Sixth in a series of reports on local baseball teams …

LANDIS — Last season’s South Rowan baseball report was headlined: “Experienced Raiders will be hard to beat.”

That glowing praise actually proved to be an understatement. The hype was huge. They were better than the hype.

The 2022 edition of the Raiders had it all and did it all and won it all. They put up staggering offensive and defensive numbers, beat a powerhouse East Rowan team three out of four, went 30-5 and provided many of the most dramatic moments in South’s athletic history on the road to the 3A state championship.

Besides sharing the South Piedmont Conference regular-season title with East with a 13-1 mark, South added the SPC tournament hardware to the trophy case.

It was the crowning season in a two-thumbs-up run for head coach Thad Chrismon, who steered South’s program for 14 years. South is traditionally a good baseball school and has won 55 percent of its games all-time. Chrismon raised the bar to a 62-percent winning rate during his tenure.

Chrismon went out on top, with the tense final game of the state championship series providing his 212th career victory, tying him for sixth place all-time in Rowan County.

Chrismon is sticking with the program as an assistant coach, but he’s stepped back from head-coaching duties. A contributing reason for that is it will give him time to watch his son, Nathan, play baseball for East Carolina. Nathan, the 2022 Mark Norris Memorial Award winner as Rowan County Player of the Year, is getting playing time for the Pirates as a freshman.

South’s new head coach is Grayson Miller, a 29-year-old former Northwest Cabarrus and Belmont Abbey player. He was primarily a catcher, although he also pitched a few times for the Crusaders.

Miller joined South’s coaching stable in 2019 and has experience coaching South Rowan Junior Legion, the South jayvees and the South varsity. He’s very familiar with every player on the team.

South can’t duplicate the sort of success it had last season, but the Raiders hope to be able to stay in the upper tier of a fiercely competitive league while they rebuild.

They might be able to do that. There are some good players in the pipeline, some talented sophomores and some juniors who have been waiting for their chance.

“It’s a much different team,” Miller said. “Lots of new faces. We graduated nine guys and all nine played, so we don’t have a lot of varsity experience.”

In the early going, South actually has played quite well, but has struggled to finish off games.

The Raiders are 1-5, with four one-run losses, including a 1-0 defeat and an extra-innings setback. They are 0-3 on the road. The SPC opener provided a gut-wrenching loss. The Raiders lost 6-5 after leading 5-0 going to the bottom of the seventh.

“We’ve played a challenging schedule early and it hasn’t bounced our way very often, but we’re going to be OK,” Miller said. “Lots of one-run games. Our record could easily look a lot different.”

The lone victory so far was against a really talented Charlotte Christian team in extra innings.

While that incredible up-the-middle crew of shortstop Chrismon, second baseman Ty Hubbard (50 RBIs), center fielder Kane Kepley and catcher Jason Ritchie has moved on, South still has a star, one of the county’s best players.

Wake Forest signee Haiden Leffew is not only South’s ace, he probably will be the Raiders’ best hitter. The lefty slinger was awesome in 2022 on the mound (10 wins, 124 strikeouts, 1.32 ERA). He swings right-handed and has titanic power. He had two homers and 13 doubles in 2022.

“Haiden has been there and done that,” Miller said. “Great pitcher, great competitor and a lot of experience. He’ll be a big bat for us as well.”

Leffew can dominate and will give South a good chance to win every time he pitches. He struck out 14 while working six scoreless innings against Central Cabarrus on Tuesday.

Leffew is athletic enough to play the outfield, but he normally will be the first baseman when he’s not pitching.

Lining up the staff behind Leffew has been the trickiest part of the equation so far, as South has to replace Carson Crainshaw and Chandler Oddie, both of whom came through with huge seasons as seniors.

Brandon White, the former North Rowan southpaw, will again work with the pitchers. Parker Hubbard, a standout infielder for the Raiders a while back, will be the head jayvee coach.

Senior Cole Thomas was the fourth pitcher on the championship team and got innings last season. The other candidates are juniors Logan Ballard (he’s a lefty), Aaron Jones and Brett Morris and sophomores Marshal Faw and Conner Coy.

Thomas also will be the regular catcher. Coy would move behind the dish when Thomas pitches.

The infield figures to have Coy (second base) and Jones (shortstop) up the middle most of the time. Morris will be the primary third baseman.

Drew Blackwell can help at multiple infield positions.

The outfield crew includes Brooks Hubbard, Hunter Alexander, Gabe Dial, Coleman Overcash, Ballard and Faw.

“Faw will be all over the field,” Miller said. “Center field, second base, shortstop, pitcher.”

There’s not a lot of depth, so Faw’s versatility will be important.

It’s a roster of  only 12, and there will times when only two seniors (Leffew and Thomas) will be on the field.

No miracles are expected, but the Raiders do expect to win their share.

“I think we can be good defensively and I think we’ll compete hard,” Miller said. “But this is a tough league. This is a league where everyone has good arms.”

South Rowan baseball glance

Coach: Grayson Miller (1st season)

Player to watch: Pitcher/first baseman Haiden Leffew

Key losses: The infield, the outfield, the catcher and two of the top three pitchers

2022 record: 13-1 SPC, 30-5 overall, 3A state champions

2023 record: 1-5

Conference regular-season championships (8): 1964, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1996, 2003, 2005, 2022