High school baseball: One more thrill for East’s Hill

Published 7:00 am Thursday, May 4, 2023

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY — East Rowan senior Blake Hill’s three-run, walk-off homer ended the season for South Rowan’s defending 3A state champions.

But no one ever will be able to say the sixth-seeded  Raiders bowed out without a fight. Playing for first-year head coach Grayson Miller and with one returning starter from the state champs, they won a road game on Tuesday at third-seeded Lake Norman Charter they weren’t expected to win.

Then they pushed a loaded East Rowan team to the limit on Wednesday in a South Piedmont Conference Tournament semifinal.

Second-seeded East survived South’s upset bid, 12-9, largely because of Hill. The American Legion star and Catawba recruit is having a smashing senior year in his first season of being a full-time player for East. He produced two homers and a double. He drove in six runs.

“You never expect a 12-9 game, but South was hitting the ball and we were hitting the ball,” Hill said. “I mean, it was back and forth. Kind of a crazy game, but a close game, a really good game for people to watch.”

East put N.C. State signee Chance Mako on the mound, 6-0 this season and 18-1 in his high school career, but the Raiders, who beat him last season in a memorable showdown, didn’t blink.

Haiden Leffew, that lone returning South starter from 2022, socked the first homer that Mako has allowed this season. Freshman Drew Pegram has been hot for a while, and he kept hitting. So did Drew Blackwell.

Both teams scored twice in the first inning. Hill launched his first homer in his first at-bat.

It looked like East might pull away for a routine victory. One run in the second, one in the third, two more in the fourth, and the Mustangs, who have a non-stop lineup that mashes homers and doubles at a prolific pace, led 6-2.

It wasn’t over. Mako struck out nine, but South knocked him out with a four-run fifth, and it was 6-all.

In the sixth, South went up 7-6. East tied it at 7-all in the bottom of the half.

The Raiders went back ahead 9-7 in the top of the seventh, scoring twice against reliever Logan Dyer, and the pressure was on the Mustangs.

Mako homered to get the bottom of the seventh started. It was the fifth blast of the season for Mako.

“Chance’s homer gave us a lot of confidence that we were fine, that we were going to come back,” Hill said. “We knew we were going to get back to the top of the lineup in the seventh.We were going to get Dyer and Cobb Hightower up there. Those guys always hit.”

Hightower produced the hit the that tied the game at 9-all. With two teammates on base, Hill headed to the plate.

“I’m batting in the 4-hole now, so I knew I might not get a fastball on the first pitch,” Hill said. “I went up there looking for a curveball — and I got one.”

It was walk-off time for the Mustangs, who had 15 hits. Dyer got another relief win.

Freshman Harrison Ailshie is back in the East lineup. He’d been out with a hip issue. He had two hits.

Braden Shive had two hits and stole three bases.  McCall Henderson drove in three runs with two hits. Morgan Padgett had two more hits.

Hightower’s batting average tumbled to an outrageous .530 on Wednesday, as he only had two hits in five at-bats. The UNC commit has turned in a scary junior season — 37 runs, 40 RBIs — and East still could play for a while.

Hill has done more than his share. He’s batting .455 with five homers, eight doubles and 28 RBIs.

South closes the books at 8-15, but with a finish that wasn’t quiet. It will be remembered.

Now East gets one more crack at top-seeded West Rowan.

The championship  game will be played at Staton Field on Thursday at 7 p.m. West, which beat Carson 6-5 in the other semifinal on Wednesday, will be in the unusual position of being the home team on East’s field.

East and West were co-champs in the SPC, but West beat the Mustangs twice in the SPC regular season to wrap up the league’s best seed for the 3A playoffs.

East remains ahead of the Falcons in the 3A West RPI rankings, but West will get the stronger seed in the 32-team 3A West playoff bracket.