High school baseball: Player of the Year Hightower added power

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 24, 2023

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY — East Rowan’s Blake Hill and West Rowan’s Lucas Graham were fantastic, batting over .500, but there still was little doubt about the Rowan County Player of the Year for the 2023 baseball season.

East junior Cobb Hightower was a unanimous choice. He was endorsed not only by his coaches, but by the opposing coaches he pounded.

Hightower’s knockout offensive stat line tells a lot of the story — .515 batting average, 4 homers, 44 runs scored, 44 RBIs, 51 hits, 22 steals.

That’s the most hits in a season by a Mustang in this century. Then throw in some sensational work at the critical defensive position of shortstop.

Hightower will receive the Mark Norris Memorial Award, a staple of Rowan County sports that was first presented 45 years ago.

Mark Norris was a standout catcher and team leader for the Salisbury baseball program. He captained the Hornets in 1975 and 1976. He was killed in an auto accident over Christmas break in 1977 when he was a sophomore at UNC Pembroke.

The first Mark Norris Memorial Award was a surprise gesture. Mark’s older brother, Eric Norris, presented it on behalf of the Norris family to Clai Martin, who had been chosen as Salisbury’s 1978 baseball MVP, at the school’s spring sports awards banquet. Martin and Mark Norris had been teammates.

Mark Norris Memorial Awards were presented to Salisbury baseball team MVPs in the years that followed, but in 1982, Eric Norris was told the baseball award was “too nice” and couldn’t be handed out at the school athletic banquet any longer. The splendid trophy was overshadowing smaller plaques that were being handed out for other sports.

The family of Tim Kirk, a two-time Norris Award winner, made the suggestion that the award become a countywide honor, and with the approval of the Salisbury Post’s Horace Billings and Ed Dupree, the Mark Norris Memorial Award became synonymous with the Rowan County Player of the Year Award in 1983.

Hornets still won the award in 1983 and 1984. The first player not from Salisbury High to win it was East Rowan catcher Chris Cauble in 1985.

Over the years, Salisbury, East North, South, West and Carson all have had their winners and co-winners, but when you mention “The Norris” in any corner of the county everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about.

The cost of materials for the awards has soared over the years. The award costs at least five times as much now as it did when Martin received that first one back in 1978.  But the Norris family continues to provide the trophy, and Eric is pleased that his brother is remembered fondly every June by Rowan baseball fans.

He is ecstatic with the prestige that continues to be attached to the award and he is thrilled with the track records, on and off the field, of the men who won it. He considers all of them family members.

Norris winner Ross Steedley (East) is a Division I head coach at Queens University. Two-time Norris winner Daniel Moore (North) was inducted into the Salisbury-Rowan Hall of Fame last year. Two-time Norris winner Owen White (Carson) made his MLB debut recently, while Norris winner Vance Honeycutt (Salisbury) was this season’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year for UNC. Last season’s winner, Nathan Chrismon (South), contributed to East Carolina’s success as a freshman.

Good people win the award. In 2010, when North pitcher Patrick Snider was dying of cancer, another North hurler, Sandy Moore,  a Norris Award winner 15 years earlier, quietly presented his award to Snider, who didn’t get the chance to fulfill his own dream.

Hightower’s head coach, Brett Hatley (West), owns a Norris Award. He was the winner in 2006.

So Hightower joins a select fraternity of excellent players. He is worthy. He committed to the University of North Carolina while he was still a sophomore and he’s obviously still getting better.

As the son of former standout athletes (former Catawba player and East coach Brian Hightower and former basketball player and coach Addie Holbrook Hightower), he had the optimal gene pool and he got started early with baseball.

“Cobb was raised with sports, grew up with baseball from a young age, and he’s got a very high baseball IQ,” Hatley said. “He was already a good player when he got to high school. His baseball instincts, on the bases and in the field, are off the charts. He understands the game and he understands how to play the shortstop position like few guys his age do.”

Hightower can hit. He hit everyone. He hit .556 with 27 RBIs in 14 South Piedmont Conference games and was SPC Player of the Year.

He hit .538 in the state playoffs. He hit .462 in the SPC tournament.

He hit .533 (8-for-15) in games against Rowan opponents, and that was facing ace pitchers such as South’s Haiden Leffew, Carson’s Hayden Simmerson and West’s Corbin Bailey.

Hightower had a much different role as a junior than he did as a sophomore, moving from the top of the lineup to the middle.

“It was a very different,” Hightower said. “You see lots more curveballs and changeups when you’re in that 3-hole and not very many fastballs. I’d say I saw 70 percent curveballs and changeups, so there was a mental adjustment period. But I had job to do — drive in runs — and I usually was able to help the team.”

Hightower prepared for his altered role by pushing himself physically in the baseball off-season.

“I’d get up at 5:30 and go lift weights and then I’d go to school and then to baseball workouts, then school work, and then I’d sleep,” Hightower said. “That’s all I did for three solid months, and I got results. I got better. I got bigger, faster, stronger.”

The physical difference in a year isn’t hard to see. He has sprouted to 6 feet in height. He went from being a 155-pound leadoff type to a 180-pound masher.

“Best game of the season for me was the playoff game with Asheboro,” Hightower said. “Good team and we got down early, but we hit our way back into it.”

He went 3-for-4 in that one, scored three and drove in three. His night included his first inside-the-park homer.

He’s playing this summer, as always, for the South Charlotte Panthers, a high-powered showcase team that takes on just about anyone in the world in tournaments.

He was playing with the Panthers when UNC spotted him. They were there to scout someone else — but Hightower was the one who stood out. UNC started following him, and the Tar Heels offered, even when he was still a little guy.

Hightower chuckles when he’s asked if his commitment to UNC is still firm.

“Dream school for me, No. 1, the top of the list,” he said. “When UNC offered, that was it for me as far as recruiting. There’s nothing that could happen that could change that.”

Games with the Panthers this summer will take him to Georgia, Florida and Alabama where he’ll face elite arms. The Panthers are so good that Hightower usually plays second base for them, but that’s fine with him. It’s valuable experience, being on the other end of double plays, and maybe his first opportunity to play for UNC will come at second base.

Between weekend games with the Panthers, he spends a lot of his free time at batting cages. Baseball is in his blood, and it’s something he can’t get enough of.

East had a terrific team (23-6) with a powerful offense that had Hightower as the centerpiece. East lost twice to West Rowan but tied for first place with the Falcons in the SPC.

East won the SPC tourney and made Rowan’s best playoff run. The Mustangs reached the fourth round before losing a one-run road game to eventual state champion West Henderson.

“You’ve got to be good and you’ve also got to be lucky to win state,” Hightower said. “Maybe next season, things will break our way.”


Mark Norris Memorial Award winners

1978-1982 Presented to Salisbury High MVP
1983-2016 Presented to Rowan County Player of the Year
1978 — Clai Martin
1979 — Mike Lippard
1980 — Coe Brier
1981 — Tim Kirk
1982 — Tim Kirk
1983 — Jerry Page, Salisbury
1984 — Kris Huffman, Salisbury
1985 — Chris Cauble, East
1986 — Brian Blackwell, North
1987 — Doug Sokolowski, West
1988 — Paul Meckes, South
1989 — John Basinger, Salisbury
1990 — Kevin Ennis, North
1991 — Shannon Myers, North
1992 — Donald McGinnis, East
1993 — Keith Knight, Salisbury
1994 — Chad Yates, East
1995 — Sandy Moore, North and Brad Rye, East
1996 — Larry Ballard, South
1997 — Craig Powers, North
1998 — Eddie Guessford, East
1999 — Daniel Moore, North
2000 — Daniel Moore, North
2001 — Jared Barnette, West
2002 — Cal Hayes Jr., East
2003 — Andrew Morgan, South
2004 — Patrick Adams, West
2005 — Phillip Hilliard, Salisbury
2006 — Brett Hatley, West
2007 — Weston Church, West and Ross Steedley, East
2008 — Robbie Ijames, Salisbury
2009 — Hernan Bautista, West
2010 — Noah Holmes, East and Maverick Miles, South
2011 — Philip Tonseth, Salisbury
2012 — Nathan Fulbright, East
2013 — John Daugherty, Carson
2014 — Michael Caldwell, East
2015 — Heath Mitchem, Carson
2016 — Ike Freeman, East
2017 — Owen White, Carson
2018 — Owen White, Carson and Hayden Setzer, East
2019 — Luke Barringer, Carson
2020 — COVID, no award
2021 — Vance Honeycutt, Salisbury
2022 — Nathan Chrismon, South
2023 — Cobb Hightower, East