High school baseball: East wins 32nd behind Burleyson, heads to 3A Championship Series

Published 4:34 am Saturday, May 25, 2024

GRANITE QUARRY — Sizzling sophomore Harrison Ailshie smashed another one over the fence and McCall Henderson hit one over the moon, but the biggest story at Staton Field  was Joe Burleyson.

Burleyson, a senior who is East Rowan’s first-string catcher and No. 3 pitcher, threw a complete game and propelled the Mustangs into the 3A State Championship Series for the first time since their memorable trip in 2010.

The Mustangs beat Tuscola 6-3 on Friday night to win the 3A West Championship Series two games to one.

“Had to bounce back after losing that first game at home, but I was more down about it than the guys were,” East head coach Brett Hatley said. “They never lost confidence, couldn’t wait to play Game 2, and we went up to their place and beat them by 10 runs. But that’s a really good Tuscola team. We had to play well or we wouldn’t have beaten them.”

East’s next opponent will be South Central (24-4), a talented squad that set the NCHSAA record with three grand slams in a regional game on Tuesday.

“It was a very big atmosphere at the field tonight,” Hatley said. “With graduation on Saturday, there were going to be some solemn guys if we lost this one. Now graduation is going to be a very happy occasion.”

It was the biggest game that Catawba recruit Burleyson ever has pitched, but the moment wasn’t too huge for him. He got lots of help of Krys Hernandez, who can play all over the place and catches when Burleyson pitches. He also got aid from pitching coach Ethan Free, who called the pitches.

Burleyson (5-0) calmly got the job done — and then some.

“The game starts and Joe hits the first guy and then walks the next one, and I’m looking over at Ethan and we’re wondering if we maybe we should get someone warmed up,” Hatley said. “But Joe got through that first inning with only two runs, so we knew we were going to be OK.”

Both of those early Mountaineer runs scored on a double by Amos Rich, who pitched a complete game for Tuscola (22-7) in the series opener.

Burleyson wasn’t behind long.

East didn’t face the pitcher it expected to be facing, but in the bottom of the first, Braden Shive and Cobb Hightower got on base with singles in front of Ailshie. The youngster’s ninth homer of the season turned that 2-0 East deficit into a 3-2 lead with one electric swing. Ailshie has 49 RBIs and is batting .417.

“The biggest thing there was that Joe could see his teammates had his back,” Hightower said. “Then he goes out there confident for the top of the second and starts to roll. He strikes out the side.”

The Mustangs (32-2) set a school and county record for wins in a season and gave Burleyson some breathing room in the third inning. With two outs, Hightower whipped a double, and Ailshie singled him home for his eighth RBI in a two-day span. Then Henderson, East’s powerful valedictorian, absolutely crushed one over the scoreboard in right field, and it was 6-2.

The homer was the seventh for Henderson, who has 56 RBIs, one of the highest season totals in NCHSAA history. He’s batting .453.

East rapped into several double plays and couldn’t add to its lead, but Burleyson put up zeroes in the fourth, fifth and sixth and kept the score at 6-2.

Most of the plays were routine. East turned one double play behind him. Henderson made a nice pick of a low throw to first base. Shive made a catch in right field at the fence.

Tuscola finally pushed across another run in the seventh, but Burleyson got that 21st out he was looking for on a popup, and elated Mustangs dog-piled.

Burleyson allowed only three hits in his efficient performance. He struck out five and didn’t walk a batter after the first inning.

Hightower went 2-for-2 with a walk and scored two runs. The UNC recruit has gotten on base with hits or walks almost 60 percent of the time this season and has scored 60 runs. He has 159 career hits and has scored 154 runs, one of the great careers in county history.


East will play the South Central Falcons at Ting Stadium in Holly Springs.

The first game is Friday at 5 p.m.

Game 2 is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Saturday. If a third game is needed, it would be played at 5 p.m. on Saturday.