High school baseball: East, 26-1, and still pushing

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 4, 2024


By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY  —  Cobb Hightower socked another homer as East Rowan beat Lake Norman Charter 11-3 in Thursday’s South Piedmont Conference Tournament championship game. Hightower also doubled. He scored three runs and drove in three.

Braden Shive went 2-for-2 and scored three runs. McCall Henderson had two hits, with a double, and drove in four.

Logan Dyer had two hits and scored twice and handled most of the pitching duties. Hightower finished on the mound.

It was a 2-all game in the fifth, but top-seeded East (26-1) had a four-run fifth and a five-run sixth to break it open.


Second-seeded Lake Norman Charter will take a 17-7 record into the 3A playoffs, while the Mustangs will continue to push for history and potentially a 3A state championship.

There’s not much doubt that East will be the favorite to come out of the 3A West playoff bracket. Everyone else in 3A West has lost at least four games.

That East has been very good this season is not a shock. Except for a lull in the 1980s and an occasional off season here and there, East has been good in baseball since the 1960s.

East has had only two losing baseball seasons in this century.

But 26-1 is different. No one wins them all — or even almost all — in baseball. Coach Brett Hatley and his staff have a won-lost record that is challenging the best in school (and county) history.

East’s legendary 1995 team, coached by Jeff Safrit, went 29-1, batted .363 as a team with 36 homers and also had the superb pitching to shut out Asheboro twice in the 3A championship series. The only loss was to 4A Providence in an Easter Tournament, and Providence won 4A that season. That team can make a good case as the best ever in the county.

East’s 2010 team, coached by Brian Hightower, went 31-2, had two 13-game winning streaks and won the 3A state title with a strong combination of pitching, hitting (15 homers) and defense. That team lost at home to Northwest Cabarrus and on the road at West Rowan.

East went 23-6 in 2023 and was very stout but graduated a lot of power from that team. Seniors Blake Hill, Morgan Padgett and Chance Mako walloped 15 homers and 26 doubles, and Hill was a .500 hitter. Padgett, Mako and Dylan Valley accounted for 18 of East’s 23 wins on the mound.

East’s lineup returned Hightower, Dyer, Henderson, Shive, Nate Hayworth, Joe Burleyson and Harrison Ailshie.

They’ve all had good, healthy seasons, and Ailshie has made an extraordinary jump. The sophomore batted .321 as a varsity freshman with no homers and eight RBIs. This season, he’s batting .393 with six homers and 36 RBIs.

UNC recruit Hightower’s senior season — .459, 47 runs, eight homers, 36 RBIs, 29 walks, .607 OBP — has been one for the books.

Henderson is batting .436 with considerable power, while Shive is batting .435 with considerable speed.

Sam Blackwelder, Krys Hernandez and Mason Phelps are among the players who have made significant offensive and defensive contributions.

East is batting .350 as a team.

On the mound is where it has really come together for East in a big way.

East returned only five wins from 2023, most of them from Dyer, who was 3-3 but was coming off shoulder surgery. He’s proven to be healthy, and he has been a co-ace, along with Ailshie, who has emerged as a brilliant two-way player. Ailshie and Dyer are both 8-0.

Ailshie was 0-1 last season.

It was hoped that Burleyson, the starting catcher, could give the Mustangs another solid starter, and he’s been done that. He’s 4-0 with an ERA of 0.26.

Hightower has pitched for the first time as a senior and has been a quality finisher. He’s 3-1 and has hurled in 13 games.

Hayworth has pitched eight times. Phelps has contributed two wins, while Isaiah Osterhus has one. The team ERA is 1.65.

East has won 19 in a row since a 6-5 loss at West Rowan on March 19.

East knows it will be the No. 1 seed in the 3A West bracket, although the opponent will be a mystery until Monday when the brackets are released by the NCHSAA.

The playoffs will start at Staton Field on Tuesday.