Baseball championship preview: storylines, predictions, and what to watch for

Baseball championship preview: storylines, predictions, and what to watch for

Welcome to the final 2023-24 state championship previews for HighSchoolOT Insiders.

It’s the mission of HighSchoolOT to cover all sports statewide. While I feel like we put our best foot forward trying to see everyone in North Carolina before the championships, it’s always a task that is easier said than done.

This spring, I am proud to admit that I have been able to see all eight of our state’s baseball regional champions, and can break down their matchups with confidence. Without further ado, here is everything you need to know before your weekend trip to Burlington or Holly Springs.

1A State Championship: Northside vs. Uwharrie Charter

A spring that fans in Beaufort County will never forget culminates in a trip to Holly Springs to face the defending champs.

The Panthers bounced back nicely from a game-one loss in the regional final to East Wake Academy. Barton commit Brandon Arthur has been spectacular on the mound, and East Carolina recruit James Sawyer is another big arm at Northside’s disposal.

When the top of the Panther can get on base, typically good things happen. What Jamie Corprew brings out of the lead-off spot is special. The senior enters this weekend batting .411 with 37 hits, 22 stolen bases, and 28 runs scored. All four of those are team-leading numbers.

Uwharrie has a stable of arms as well. Led by Brett Smith and Jake Hunter, the Eagles’ pitching staff carries a 1.80 team ERA to Ting Park.

Hunter and Logun Wilkins both threw complete game shutouts in the regional championship series. Smith tossed a two-hitter over seven innings only to have an unearned run in the top of the first lead to a 1-0 game two loss.

The Eagles lineup has plenty of depth, and shortstop Caleb Stickle bring a hot bat into the finals. Stickle went 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles and four driven in on Saturday night in a 12-0 game three win at Mount Airy.

Northside wins the state championship because: Their run as a team of destiny continues. The bats are able to string together a handful of big innings, and Arthur dominates on the mound.

Uwharrie Charter wins the state championship because: It’s pitching is the best that Northside has seen this season. The Eagles battle and earn their first win, and the offense explodes to clinch a second straight title similarly to how the regional final played out.

Prediction: Uwharrie Charter’s championship pedigree and pitching depth is enough to lift it to a two-game sweep of the series.

2A State Championship: Greene Central vs. Burns

Burns is one of three programs looking to go back-to-back. The Bulldogs survived a scare last week against East Rutherford while Greene Central had to fight back to win in game three to escape Whiteville.

Both teams dropped their first games of the season in the regional final, and now they meet in Burlington.

The Rams are your prototypical dominant eastern North Carolina team. They’re not the biggest, nor the strongest, but 1-through-9 their lineup is full of solid ball players who can wreak havoc on both sides of the ball.

Austin Hardy’s senior season has been nothing short of magical. The Greene Central lefty has pitched to a 0.50 ERA in 70 innings all while striking out 140 batters.

East Carolina recruit Braden Burress has been just as good, leading the way with a .598 batting average, 17 of 49 hits going for extra bases, and a 0.46 ERA in 75.2 innings on the bump.

The Bulldogs can be best described as powerful. The big bats atop their order are capable of leaving the yard at any given moment. On the mound, they possess a handful of top arms that are capable of getting the job done.

Jackson Toney and Colby Putnam will more than likely get the ball for the first two games of the series. Both are hard-throwing right-handers with Putnam having a nice multi-pitch mix. Entering the regional finals, Burns had not allowed more than three runs in each of its previous 13 games.

Putnam and Toney are penciled into the top of the batting order with first baseman and potential game-three starter Marshall McGowan leading things off just ahead of them. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, McGowan is not your everyday high school lead-off hitter. From the second the top of the order makes its way into the box, high-leverage pitches are needed to get them out.

Lefty Josh Taylor is another arm to watch for out of the bullpen. If not for his shutout relief appearance last Saturday night, the Bulldogs may not be making the trip to Alamance County this weekend.

Greene Central wins the state championship because: Hardy outduels Putnam in the series opener, and the Rams go all in to steal away one of the next two. Burress is nearly impossible to stop at the top of the lineup, and the Rams manufacture 4-5 runs to escape with a second win.

Burns wins the state championship because: It is one of the three best baseball teams in the state of North Carolina. You don’t win 38 games in a row for no reason, and even outside of the friendly confines of The Dog Lot, the big bats still pack a punch. The pitching will have to bounce back from last week’s performance to help back the offense.

Prediction: Burns wins in three. I do believe that either Hardy or Burress is enough to help the Rams steal one of the first two games and make things interesting. Having been there before, the Bulldogs have the edge to shake off the loss quickly and rebound in a third game that probably has the largest run differential of the three matchups.

3A State Championship: East Rowan vs. South Central

This is going to be the best matchup of the weekend. If you like hitting, a trip to Ting Park should be on your agenda this weekend.

South Central flexed its muscle in a jaw-dropping sweep of Terry Sanford. The Falcons built together a strong resume that merited their trip to the regional final, but the way that they took their game to another level when the lights were brightest says a lot.

Mason Hobbs is hitting a smooth .500 on the season with 3 homers and 27 driven in. Freshman Brody Brannan has also swung a big bat to the tune of a .439 average.

Pitching has not been the team’s strong suit as they have a 3.42 team ERA and only two pitchers with over 20 innings thrown this season. South Central is going to need a big outing from junior Christian Chance or freshman Justin Blow to feel good about its chances of hoisting a banner.

East Rowan has been one of North Carolina’s most consistent teams from start to finish. The first five hitters in the Mustangs order all have over 40 hits to their name this season.

Carolina recruit Cobb Hightower, and sophomore Harrison Ailshie have nine home runs each. If you get past either of them, you have to deal with lefty McCall Henderson whose seventh bomb of the season secured a regional final win over Tuscola last Friday.

Ailshie leads a pitching staff that enters this weekend with a 1.82 ERA. The lefty has 76 K’s in 63.1 IP while projected game two starter Logan Dyer has punched out 74 in 57.1 innings. If the series goes to a third game, Catawba commit Joe Burleyson will be an X factor on the mound. The senior has been phenomenal in his 36 innings of work this year. It includes only three hits allowed in the clinching third game of the regional championship series.

South Central wins the state championship because: The bats remain red-hot, and force East Rowan to dip into its bullpen earlier in the series than it wants. The Falcons piece together a strong pitching performance to take one of the first two games, then put all hands on deck to claim another.

East Rowan wins the state championship because: South Central meets its match offensively, and its bats cannot handle East Rowan’s rotation. The Mustangs have too much depth in their lineup for the Falcons’ pitching staff to consistently maneuver around. 2 or 3 of the best players on the field have “ER” on their chest and it’s too much to overcome.

Prediction: East Rowan could very easily win this one in a two-game sweep, but South Central is riding too much momentum to let that happen. The Falcons find a way to take one of the first two, but Burleyson is too much to figure out in game three.

4A State Championship: Ashley vs. T.C. Roberson

It’s hard to say that a 1-seed is a “team of destiny” or that it’s on a “Cinderella run” but Ashley has tempted fate all postseason long. The Screaming Eagles walked off winners in four of its last five games to set up a matchup with fellow 1-seed T.C. Roberson.

Quinn Bentley has been a star for Ashley. The junior is batting a team-best .506 this season and leads the way in home runs (3), stolen bases (15), runs (37), hits (41), doubles (12), triples (3), slugging (.839), and on-base (.661).

Pitching has helped keep the Screaming Eagles afloat until their offense can manufacture enough in the late innings. As a staff, Ashley has pitched to a 1.41 team ERA. Cole Barnes is the ace of a solid three-man rotation with Jackson Lee and Cane Mehling. Barnes has a 1.14 ERA with 86 strikeouts in 79.2 IP. Lee and Mehling have combined to punch out 90 batters in 89.2 innings.

On the other side sits the defending champs who make the trip from Asheville to Burlington once again. The Rams have won 12 straight while posting three shutouts in five playoff games.

Probable game-one starter Reno Jeter has been responsible for all three of those shutouts. He enters Friday night having only thrown 3.2 innings since May 13 due to a 13-0 run-rule victory over Charlotte Catholic in the first game of the regional final.

Waiting to presumably get the ball in game two is reigning state championship MVP Micah Simpson. The lefty was masterful last Thursday in a 3-1 clincher at Charlotte Catholic. When the lights are brightest, the Western Carolina commit has been the one to get the ball for the Rams.

Offensively, the Roberson lineup lacks comfortable at-bats for opposing pitching staffs. When the Rams are at their best, the bottom third of the order is finding ways to set the table for guys like Zeb Swangim, J.T. Smith, and Caden Davidson in the top third of the lineup.

Ashley wins the state championship because: Its magical run deserves a magical ending. They crack the code against either Jeter or Simpson, and have a favorable pitching matchup in game three. All hands are on deck, and the team that’s back has been up against the wall throughout this entire journey leans on its experience to come out on top.

T.C. Roberson wins the state championship because: Much like Burns, it is one of the most talented teams in the entire state regardless of classification, association, etc. The Rams have felt inevitable, and have risen to the occasion every time that they have had to play in a big game this season. What’s scary is that only three seniors will be graduating from this group.

Prediction: T.C. Roberson wins big in game one and uses a big inning in game two to back another Simpson gem to complete the sweep. Ashley has been such a great story all postseason long, but the Rams are just a different animal this weekend.

HighSchoolOT will have coverage from both Burlington and Holly Springs this weekend.

A host of writers and photographers such as Joel Bryant, Jonas Pope IV, Zack Ciboth, Jerrell Jordan, Joshua Chayer, and Ray Black will be moving around between the two parks. Stop and say hi!