College baseball: Rusher finds his way home

Published 5:51 am Thursday, June 29, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — His name is Bobby Lee Rusher III, but he’s been “Bo” for as long as anyone can remember.

Bo is a good name for an athlete, and he was an outstanding varsity baseball player for Salisbury High for four seasons (2016-19).

He also had his moments on summer nights for the Rowan County American Legion team, including a three-run blast on opening night at Holt-Moffitt Field in 2019.

He’s been away for a while, four years of studying and playing Division I baseball for Gardner-Webb University, but sometimes life moves in a circle, and now he’s coming home to Catawba and Newman Park to finish his college career.

“Growing up, I was teammates with Payne Stolsworth and Cole Hales on travel teams, and now we’re going to be Catawba teammates,” Rusher said. “I can’t think of a better way to go out than that.”

In high school, he was quite a player for coach Mike Herndon’s Hornets. He was a strong pitcher, but he drew recruiting interest because he could play a critical defensive position (catcher) and he provided a powerful lefty bat. Lefty-hitting catchers are rare and precious gems in the baseball world.

“Recruiting for me peaked in the fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019,” Rusher said. “I remember committing to Gardner-Webb and five minutes later Coach (Jim) Gantt called and wanted me to come to Catawba.”

Rusher stuck with his pledge to Gardner-Webb. As much as he liked and trusted Gantt, Gardner-Webb was Division I, and that was the dream. Gardner-Webb took on teams such as UNC and Duke.

Rusty Stroupe, who had been head coach at Gardner-Webb forever, retired shortly after the 2019 season, so there was a coaching transition (to Jim Chester) before Rusher ever got to the G-W campus in Boiling Springs.

“When a new coaching staff is hired they’re looking to bring in mostly their own guys,” Rusher said. “But they liked me when I was a freshman and wanted me to stay, and so I did.”

By his senior year, he would be the last from his recruiting class to still be with the program.

Rusher’s freshman season in 2020 was the COVID season. He played in only four games and went 1-for-12, but he didn’t get discouraged.

“Every guy in Division I was probably the best player on his high school team,” Rusher said. “The pitching was tough.”

He solved that challenging pitching for his first two college homers as a sophomore.

He earned substantial playing time his last three seasons with the Bulldogs.

As a senior, he batted .248 with four homers and 19 RBIs. He had 10 homers and 60 RBIs in his G-W career.

“I had a decent four years offensively, but when when I got to college, I was a hitter who happened to catch,” Rusher said. “But when you’re a college catcher, defense has to be the priority, and defense is where I really worked and improved over the years. Receiving, throwing, framing, everything. I became a catcher first and a hitter second.”

Athletes mature quite a bit from 18 to 22, and he built himself up physically. He was about 190 pounds when he began college. Now he’s 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and certainly looks the part of catcher and team leader.

There were times with the Bulldogs when he caught Mason Miller, a third-round draft pick in 2021, who made his MLB debut with the Oakland Athletics this season.

“He kind of stood out,” Rusher said with a laugh. “His height, his stuff, everything about him.”

Because of the COVID season, Rusher had an automatic redshirt and the opportunity to play a fifth year of college baseball as a graduate student.

When he started exploring his options, it was hard for any other school to compare to Catawba and finally getting a chance to play for Gantt at Newman Park.

His sister, Lillie, plays soccer for Catawba. She did some helpful recruiting of her big brother.

Another reason for Bo deciding to come home was his grandfather. Bob Rusher was West Rowan’s first baseball coach and led the Falcons to some glory years right away in the early 1960s. He is also a former Catawba baseball player.

“My grand-dad has all the back-in-the-day stories,” Bo said. “He was a great athlete in his time, scored more than 1,000 points in high school basketball. There’s a lot of history there, and with me playing for Catawba, he can watch me play. He probably won’t miss a home game.”

Rusher is playing this summer in the Coastal Plain League, one of the top wood bat summer collegiate leagues. He has played in the league four straight summers. He played two years in Martinsville, Va., and he’s been with the High Point-Thomasville squad the last two.

“The CPL keeps me in shape and keeps me sharp,” Rusher said. “I’d put this league right up there behind the Cape Cod League and the Northwoods League as the best college summer league.”

Rusher will be a graduate student working on an MBA at Catawba.

It’s been a twisting path to get back to Salisbury, but he has no regrets about any part of the journey.

“I grew a lot and learned a lot at Gardner-Webb, and now I get to finish college baseball back home,” he said. “I’d say it’s all worked out.”