High school baseball: Line drives mean third state championship for Mustangs

Published 12:24 pm Sunday, June 2, 2024

By Mike London

HOLLY SPRINGS — East Rowan survived 3-2 in nine innings on Friday, but the bats boomed on Saturday as the Mustangs pounded South Central 11-3 to sweep the 3A State Championship Series.

“There wasn’t any pitching around those guys today,” Central coach Pat McRae said. “We did a good job with it Friday, but when hitters are stacked on top of each other like that, hitters hit. That’s what they did.”

South Central ace Christian Chance won most of his battles with the Mustangs’ sluggers on Friday night. A big ball park aided his cause.

“It’s true we had one of our worst offensive games of the season on Friday,” East coach Brett Hatley said. “Their guy was good and he made some pitches, but we did hit three or four balls that probably go out of the yard at Staton Field (East’s home park). But in this park, they were just lazy fly balls. So that’s what we stressed before the game today — hitting line drives instead of fly balls. I don’t think our guys could have responded much better. We had 17 hits. Lots of line drives.”

East was the visiting team on Saturday and put up a critical four-spot in the top of the first. Logan Dyer singled, and it was 1-0 after Braden Shive ripped a triple into the right-center alley, the first of his four hits. Cobb Hightower’s RBI single made it 2-0. Nate Hayworth delivered a two-run single for two more runs.

South Central fought back in the bottom of the second inning against Dyer, East’s right-handed pitcher.

Two walks and a single loaded the bases, and Mason Hobbs promptly unloaded them with a three-run double down the left-field line. East still led, but South Central (24-6), which had won 13 in a row coming into the championship series, had the momentum until the Mustangs took it back by hitting more line shots in the fourth.

Mason Phelps and Shive had table-setting hits, and Hightower pulled a two-out, two-run double into the left-field corner to boost the lead to 6-3. Harrison Ailshie one-hopped the wall with another double to make it 7-3. It was 8-3 after McCall Henderson singled in Ailshie to knock out South Central starting pitcher Brandon Worsley.

That second four-run inning gave Dyer a comfortable cushion in a matinee performance that started at 11 a.m. It was still 8-3 going to the sixth. That’s when hits by Dyer and Shive brought Ailshie to the plate with two men on. He cashed in on the opportunity, socking a three-run homer over the right-field wall, his 10th of the season, to put the game out of reach.

Shive went 4-for-5 and scored three runs.

Ailshie was 3-for-4 with four RBIs. Dyer scored three runs.

Hightower was 3-for-4 with three RBIs. He scored 62 runs this season, which appears to be a record for the NCHSAA.

Ailshie was voted Most Valuable Player. He pitched brilliantly in the first game of the series and also had the walk-off walk that decided it.

“Everybody played their role today, whether that was getting on base or driving in runs,” Hatley said. “Everyone did a great job all season, and that includes the guys who pinch-ran or cheered from the dugout. This is a very special team, and I couldn’t be prouder of them or happier for them. We’ve got great guys as well as great players. It’s been a thrill to coach them.”

It was a special team on and off the field.

Henderson, who played first base and drove in a county-record 57 runs, was East’s valedictorian.

Shive, the right fielder who had 51 hits and scored 47 runs, was the salutatorian for East’s Class of  2024.

It’s in the gene pool. Their older brothers, outfielder Mattox Henderson and second baseman Bryson Shive, were the valedictorian and salutatorian for the Class of 2021.

“I saw on social media people are saying we got a lucky draw and stuff like that,” said Hatley, who notched his 100th career win as a head coach. “We’ll take it. You have to have a little bit of luck to win a state championship, but you also have to be good, and our guys were talented, they put in the work, and we had a lot of good people helping us and cheering for us,”

There’s often plenty of bracket-busting in the baseball state playoffs. East didn’t play some of the teams it expected to play along the way, but the Mustangs lived up their No. 1 seeding in the 3A West bracket and they were 4-1 in pressure-packed games against Tuscola and South Central, quality teams that were under-seeded and were peaking at the end.

East’s state record 34 wins should speak for itself.

While East Rowan has won three NCHSAA state titles (1995, 2010), South Central, which opened in 2002, was seeking its first state championship in baseball. South Central is in the baseball hot bed of Pitt County. J.H. Rose, D.H. Conley and Farmville Central all have appeared in the state championship series.

East is the second Rowan County team to win a 3A baseball championship in the last three seasons. South Rowan won in 2022, a season in which East Rowan arguably was one of the best two or three teams in 3A.