High school baseball: Hightower repeats as Norris Award winner

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 20, 2024

Cobb Hightower.  .

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY — Addie Holbrook Hightower, one of the best basketball players in Statesville High history, still remembers making that excited “Hey, you’re going to be a dad!” phone call to the East Rowan field house.

Addie’s husband, Brian, a fine second baseman in the early 1990s for the Catawba Indians, missed the call. He’d been named as East’s new head baseball coach, but he also was still helping with football and was busy on the practice field.

Eventually Brian received the good news that the baby that Rowan sports fans now know as Cobb Hightower was on the way.

Brian’s first spring as East’s head coach was 2005. That was a modest 12-12 year, but the Mustangs started rolling not long after that and they won the 3A state championship in 2010 with a 31-2 record. Young Cobb Hightower took a victory lap on his dad’s shoulders on that glorious day at Zebulon’s Five County Stadium.

One of the branches on Brian Hightower’s coaching tree was Brett Hatley. Hatley followed Hightower as East’s coach in 2020, just in time for that dreary season aborted by COVID. When play resumed, Hatley piloted East to three straight conference co-championships. The Mustangs tied Carson in 2021. Then they tied state champ South Rowan in 2022. Then they shared with West Rowan in 2023.

This was a breakthrough season for Hatley. East not only won an outright South Piedmont Conference championship, the Mustangs went all the way in 3A and smashed state records with an electric 34-2 season.

For the first time, Hatley is the Rowan County Coach of the Year. His 100th career coaching victory came in the state championship game. His remarkable overall record is now 100-16. That includes a 5-1 mark in the season that COVID stopped and a 13-3 record in the delayed half-season of 2021. East was 25-5 and 23-6 in Hatley’s first two full seasons, losing in the playoffs in both of those years to the eventual state champs.

In other words, East probably has been even better in recent years than fans realize. East came close to running the table this season. Both losses were in the last inning.

Hatley deflected most of the credit for the sensational season toward his staff — Ethan Free, Michael Caldwell, Michael Pinkston, Kelly Sparger — his administrators, a group that includes co-AD Brian Hightower — and a talented group of players who have been together since they could lift a bat.

The best player in a distinguished group was Cobb Hightower, a fluid shortstop, an aggressive baserunner and a devastating No. 3 hitter.

Hightower, who broke the state record for runs scored in a season with 62, is the repeat winner of the Mark Norris Memorial Award that goes to the Rowan County Player of the Year.

Mark Norris was a standout catcher and team leader for the Salisbury baseball program. He captained the Hornets in 1975 and 1976. He was killed in an auto accident over Christmas break in 1977 when he was a sophomore at UNC Pembroke.

Mark’s brother, Eric, has presented an award to honor his brother since 1978. In its early years, it went to the Salisbury High MVP, but in 1983, it became a countywide award.

Eric Norris is an expert on all who have ever won the award. When Norris met with the Hightowers on Saturday, he let Cobb know that he was only the fourth repeat winner. Others were Salisbury’s Tim Kirk (1981-82), North Rowan’s Daniel Moore (1999-2000) and Carson’s Owen White (2017-18). White shared the 2018 award with East Rowan’s Hayden Setzer.

Two things set Hightower apart from previous repeat winners. They were great pitchers who also were assets as hitters. Hightower is a great hitter, who also was an asset as a relief pitcher. Hightower also is the first repeat winner from East Rowan.

Hightower joins the large family of Norris winners, a family that includes Hatley, who won the award as a West Rowan player in 2006. East’s infield coach Michael Caldwell won as a Mustang in 2014. Hightower’s role model growing up was East’s Ike Freeman, the Norris Award winner in 2016 and later a standout for the UNC Tar Heels.

The “Norris Family” also includes Salisbury grad Vance Honeycutt, the UNC star who is expected to be a first-round pick. Honeycutt won during COVID and received his award from Norris in the parking lot at Salisbury High.

Hightower’s toughest competition for this year’s honor came from teammates. Senior McCall Henderson broke the county record for RBIs in a season with 57. Sophomore Harrison Ailshie produced a dynamite two-way season that included 10 homers and 10 wins on  the mound.

A prolific trio batted 3-4-5 for the Mustangs, and Hightower’s super season — .451 batting average, .580 on-base percentage, 46 hits, 33 walks and 17 steals — meant he was active on the bases for the two mashers that followed him. Hightower also did considerable mashing of is own, with eight doubles, two triples, nine homers and 44 RBIs.

Hightower was the 3A Player of the Year as voted on by the North Carolina Baseball Coaches Association.

Hightower was the South Piedmont Conference Player of the Year, an award voted on by the league’s coaches following the regular season.

East wound up playing a dozen postseason games, with three SPC tourney outings (and another trophy) and nine playoff games. Hightower batted a sizzling .461 in the postseason with 18 RBIs in 39 at-bats.

His most satisfying swing of the season? That was his homer at Tuscola in Game 2 of the 3A West Championship series after the Mustangs had lost the first game of a best-of-three series at Staton Field.

“When we walked in to the field there, we had to walk past all their fans, and they gave us a hard time,” Hightower said. “We 10-run-ruled them, and after every home run, we pointed out at those fans. “Hey, guys, that was for you!”

His most satisfying moment? Throwing the pitch that got the last out in the state title game against South Central. Logan Dyer had reached the pitch count limit of 120 with one out to go. Hightower got the final out on a pop up.

And the most fun moment? “(Catcher) Joe Burleyson and I got squished at the bottom of a bunch of dog piles this season,” Hightower said. “Including the state championship game.”

Hightower had the extraordinary season that he did, even though teams didn’t mind if they walked him. He could count the fastballs he saw this season on his fingers and toes.

“I’d get ahead in the count 3-and-1, and still get a curveball,” Hightower said. “Even 3-and-0, it probably was going to be a curveball in the dirt.”

But the numbers and the records speak for themselves.

A UNC recruit who committed when he was only a sophomore, it’s possible Hightower could have a decision to make in July. You never know how the Major League Baseball draft will play out, especially when it comes to high school players, but MLB representatives have scouted him and have visited the Hightower household.

To a complete package, Cobb Hightower adds a solid sense of humor and some humility. Informed that he’ll forever be the answer to a trivia question as the relief pitcher who took both of East’s losses in a 34-2 season, he smiled, ate a pizza and didn’t hit anyone with a bat.

He actually was good on the mound as a closer and was credited with four wins.

“Cobb was raised with sports, grew up with baseball from a young age, and he’s got a very high baseball IQ,” Hatley said. “He was already a good player when he got to high school. His baseball instincts, on the bases and in the field, are off the charts. He understands the game and he understands how to play the shortstop position like few guys his age do.”


Mark Norris Memorial Award winners

1978-1982 Presented to Salisbury High MVP
1983-2016 Presented to Rowan County Player of the Year
1978 — Clai Martin
1979 — Mike Lippard
1980 — Coe Brier
1981 — Tim Kirk
1982 — Tim Kirk
1983 — Jerry Page, Salisbury
1984 — Kris Huffman, Salisbury
1985 — Chris Cauble, East
1986 — Brian Blackwell, North
1987 — Doug Sokolowski, West
1988 — Paul Meckes, South
1989 — John Basinger, Salisbury
1990 — Kevin Ennis, North
1991 — Shannon Myers, North
1992 — Donald McGinnis, East
1993 — Keith Knight, Salisbury
1994 — Chad Yates, East
1995 — Sandy Moore, North and Brad Rye, East
1996 — Larry Ballard, South
1997 — Craig Powers, North
1998 — Eddie Guessford, East
1999 — Daniel Moore, North
2000 — Daniel Moore, North
2001 — Jared Barnette, West
2002 — Cal Hayes Jr., East
2003 — Andrew Morgan, South
2004 — Patrick Adams, West
2005 — Phillip Hilliard, Salisbury
2006 — Brett Hatley, West
2007 — Weston Church, West and Ross Steedley, East
2008 — Robbie Ijames, Salisbury
2009 — Hernan Bautista, West
2010 — Noah Holmes, East and Maverick Miles, South
2011 — Philip Tonseth, Salisbury
2012 — Nathan Fulbright, East
2013 — John Daugherty, Carson
2014 — Michael Caldwell, East
2015 — Heath Mitchem, Carson
2016 — Ike Freeman, East
2017 — Owen White, Carson
2018 — Owen White, Carson and Hayden Setzer, East
2019 — Luke Barringer, Carson
2020 — COVID, no award
2021 — Vance Honeycutt, Salisbury
2022 — Nathan Chrismon, South
2023 — Cobb Hightower, East

2024 — Cobb Hightower, East