Sports: West grad Cowan part of A&T baseball history

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 11, 2024

Dr. Ezra Cowan

By Mike London

CHARLESTON, S.C.  — When you can answer the phone with the words, “Dr. Ezra Cowan speaking,” you know your life has been an academic success.

Ezra C. Cowan, who grew up in the western Rowan town of Cleveland, turned 50 two months ago. He holds a doctorate degree from Clemson University and currently works in school administration in Charleston, S.C.

Cowan developed a love for education as the years passed, but the roots of his life were dug in the dirt and grass of ball fields.

“My dad was a coach and I came from an athletic family,” Cowan said.

Cowan pitched a no-hitter in college baseball. Not many people can say that — at least not without fibbing.

And there aren’t many graduates of HBCU schools who can say they beat UNC in a sport UNC is traditionally very good at.

Cowan can check both of those boxes.

Fans of West Rowan basketball and football in the mid-1990s would remember Ezra’s younger brother, Chavis Cowan, a colorful and high-flying hooper on splendid basketball teams. He decided to go out for football as a senior in the fall of 1994 and showed what a phenomenal athlete he was by making 61 catches for 1,095 yards for a 9-4 Ron Raper-coached team. At the time, that was was West’s school record for victories.

Ezra, a few years older than Chavis, was a good football player who didn’t get to play on good teams. West was 3-7 his junior year, with two overtime losses, and 2-8 when he was a senior.

“My best position was defensive end, and that’s where I played my junior year” Cowan remembers. “Then we graduated just about everyone, and my senior year I was a utility guy, playing wherever the need was greatest on both sides of the ball. We lost a running back during that season, so I played some running back. I quarterbacked one game. I remember making two big plays back-to-back, a runback of more than 60 yards and a reverse pass for more than 60,”

He scored four touchdowns as a senior in the fall of 1991, but the Falcons, who averaged 7.9 points per game, had minimal offense. That season ended with a 57-6 loss to Concord followed by lopsided shutout losses to Salisbury and East Rowan.

“I got an MVP award for football, but baseball is the sport where I excelled,” Cowan said.

Cowan’s varsity baseball seasons at West came as the Falcons were making a head-coaching transition from Terry Osborne to Skip Kraft. His best nights came during his senior season playing for Kraft, the father of West Rowan’s current football coach, Louis Kraft.

Cowan batted left-handed and threw right-handed. He pitched some and batted .303 with 14 RBIs as a junior on a 10-14 team.

As a senior pitcher and shortstop in the spring of 1992, he had a big season for the era. He batted .333. That mark stood out because the Falcons batted .228 as a team.

He had 13 steals and scored 18 runs in a 23-game season. He went 3-3 on the mound, although he could have won several more times with more run support.

“The sharpest memory I have is of the game we played against Kannapolis (A.L. Brown) early in the season,” Cowan said. “Hut Smith, who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, was pitching for Kannapolis and there were about 15 pro scouts in the stands. I was pitching for West. I was throwing 87, 88, but Hut was throwing 96. I held them to two runs, but Hut pitched a no-hitter against us.”

Cowan also remembers the shutout he threw against North Rowan that season. He struck out eight and limited the Cavaliers to three hits.

He also had strong games at the plate. He went 3-for-3 against East Rowan. He scored three runs against Sun Valley. There was a streak in the middle of the season in which he went 9-for-11 over a four-game stretch against East Rowan, West Davidson, North Rowan and Salisbury.

“My bat stayed pretty hot that season, as I recall,” Cowan said.

He was co-MVP of the Easter Tournament at Newman Park and was honored as West Rowan’s outstanding male athlete for the school year in May 1992.

College baseball was next. Cowan headed to Greensboro and North Carolina A&T University. The head baseball coach at NC A&T was a young football assistant named Keith Henry, who had starred for Catawba College a few years earlier.

Most of Cowan’s best college memories are from his freshman season in the spring of 1993 because the Aggies became a Cinderella story. They won the conference tournament championship, the first for the school in a generation.

“I remember the first game I got to pitch in college — it was against Duke — and I did pretty well,” Cowan said.

On a road trip to Lawrenceville, Va., Cowan threw a no-hitter against Saint Paul’s, the HBCU school that closed its doors in 2012.

“A school that no longer exists,” Cowan said wistfully. “But the memory of that no-hitter is still fresh. I only threw one breaking ball that entire game. I got an out with it on a ground ball, but Coach got mad at me. He asked me why would I ever throw a breaking ball when they couldn’t hit my fastball.”

Cowan believes that the no-hitter was the first by a North Carolina A&T pitcher since the great Al Holland, who had a long MLB career, threw four no-hitters for the Aggies from 1972-75. That meant a great deal to Cowan, as he was born in 1974, during Holland’s glory days with the Aggies. As a freshman in 1972, Holland struck out 25 North Carolina Central batters during one of his no-hitters.

“I would call my momma — collect — after all my good games,” Cowan said.

That no-hitter built some confidence for the Aggies. So did a 5-4 win at Appalachian State and a high-scoring victory at UNC’s Boshamer Stadium in April 1993.

“We played Carolina in Chapel Hill the day after they beat Michigan to win the basketball national championship,” Cowan said. “They had been doing some serious celebrating there. You could smell the bourbon when we got to the field. We beat them 16-14.”

The 1993 NC A&T team still holds a place in school sports history as the Aggies won that season’s MEAC Tournament at Florida A&M’s Moore-Kittles Field in Tallahassee.

The Aggies beat Florida A&M, the league’s perennial power, in the championship game, although the tournament semifinal game with Delaware State means even more to Cowan because he pitched that one.

“We won it 7-3,” Holland said. “Probably the biggest win I ever had.”

In the frenzied celebration that took place after beating Florida A&M, Cowan’s favorite glove disappeared. He didn’t realize until the team was on the bus, headed back to Greensboro, that it wasn’t with the rest of the equipment.

“That glove meant a lot to me because there was some of my blood on it,” Cowan said. “I got hit in the nose by a ball that year, bled on that glove. I kind of liked having the blood on it.”

He got a new glove, but there were no more championships for Cowan. He did very well as a hitter and pitcher, but the stats for those seasons were lost over the years.

“I played right field, first base and DH — I would be the DH the day after I pitched,” Cowan said. “I batted cleanup in a lot of games. I remember a 3-for-4 day in 1996 when we won against Wake Forest, and they had a guy pitching who got drafted.”

As a senior in 1996, Cowan was honored with the Aggies’ Student Government Association Award for a combination of athletics and academics. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government.

A scout from the Los Angeles Dodgers talked to Cowan several times during his senior season, but he wasn’t drafted.

He played pro ball in independent leagues after college, but when he turned 24 and hadn’t been signed, he knew it was time to move on from baseball.

He went to work for Verizon. Then he spent years in pharmaceutical sales.

About a dozen years ago, he was looking for a change and his love of baseball steered him back to the field of education.

“I decided I really wanted to coach baseball, and that led me to teaching, and then to administration,” Cowan said.

For five years (2014-19), he fulfilled his goal of being a P.E. teacher and baseball coach in Charleston. He found he enjoyed the dynamics of the classroom, and during the COVID years, he enrolled in Clemson’s Doctor of Education program.

The rest is history. Now he’s Dr. Cowan — respected administrator.

In 2023, Cowan and his teammates from the 1993 NC A&T baseball squad were honored prior to a game against Florida A&M at Greensboro’s War Memorial Stadium.

“We didn’t get a ton of wins, but we got some big wins,” Cowan said.  “I’m very proud to have been affiliated with them.”