20 YEAR ANNIVERSARY: Cherryville Post 100 rallied just to get to state tournament before finishing as ALWS runner-up
By Richard Walker
Twenty years ago one of the most successful American Legion baseball teams in Cherryville’s rich history was set to begin its playoff run that wouldn’t end until Post 100 had advanced to the final game of the 2003 American Legion World Series in Bartlesville, Okla.
In the years since, the 2003 team has been remembered fondly by those who lived through it. And while their extraordinary success made them one of the area’s best teams, those involved most closely with the team say their best memories were of the bond they formed during that summer that was capped by a two-month postseason run to a second place ALWS finish.
They also remember how adversity drove the team from the start of the season, how record-setting pitcher Chris Mason’s pitching excellence and emotion drove the 2003 playoff run and how an injury to shortstop Jay Heafner in the next-to-last game cost them a national championship.
“That 2003 team was just a special group,” said coach Bobby Reynolds, who remains Cherryville Post 100 coach and is the state’s all-time winningest Legion baseball coach with 873 victories in 36 seasons entering this year’s Area IV playoffs. “Just think about the friendships that group has had over the years and with them coming from schools that were big rivals in high school.
“From what they say, other than getting married or having a kid or something, that was the most fun in a summer they ever had.”
That bond was strengthened again and again by on-the-field adversity. And their response to trying times is one of the many reasons their legacy remains so strong in Cherryville’s long, storied Legion baseball history.
With a roster that included two future professional players and 10 current or future collegians, Reynolds’ team was determined to bounce bounce back after losing its first playoff series in 2002 when future professional Kris Harvey pitched and hit and pitched Eastern Catawba past Post 100 in the fifth and decisive game.
“It sort of slapped us in the face and kept us looking straight ahead in tunnel vision mode the next year because we were disappointed,” said Raynolds, whose teams have won 22 of their last 25 opening round playoff series entering this season. “You know, for David Wise and Jay Heafner and Chris Mason and others that went to college, they set their minds to coming back to leave a better legacy than that.”
David Wise (Limestone), Heafner (Davidson), Mason (UNC-Greensboro), Brandon Hurt (Lenoir-Rhyne), Shane Summer (Blue Ridge Community College), Chris Halubka (Gardner-Webb) and Matt Craig (Limestone) were returning to Legion baseball after their freshman years in college and high school players Wayne McDonald (Blue Ridge Community College), Chris Cook (Blue Ridge Community College) and Evan Wise (Methodist and Lenoir-Rhyne) would eventually play in college.
David Wise, Heafner, Mason, Hurt, Summer and Halubka had been starters in 2002 and were key contributors in 2003 along with the newcomers who rounded out the 18-player roster: Craig, Cook, McDonald, Ben Lastra, Brock Alexander, Josh McSwain, Travis Walls, Steven Justice, Evan Wise, Jonathan Walker, Josh Glover and Jackson Beam.
The players came from five high schools – Summer, Lastra, Alexander, McSwain, Walls, Justice and Glover from Cherryville, Cook, McDonald, Walker and Beam from Burns, David Wise, Heafner, Halubka, Craig from West Lincoln, Hurt and Evan Wise from Lincolnton and Mason from Bessemer City
“It really did feel like we were hometown heroes for that summer,” David Wise said. “It was probably the most fun that I ever had playing ball. Just a really close-knit group of guys. We had played together for a long time.”
The combination of experience and talent combined to give the team a 45-10 final overall record that remains a Post 100 record for wins in a single season and N.C. Area IV, N.C. state tournament and Southeastern Regional championships.
David Wise (.434 average, 17 home runs, 60 RBIs), Mason (.397 average, 9 home runs, 47 RBIs), Heafner (.382 average, 25 RBIs), Hurt (.322 average, 16 home runs, 59 RBIs), Alexander (.275 average, 8 HRs, 29 RBIs), Craig (.263 average, 26 RBIs) and Walker (.262 average) were the top hitters but a pitching staff led by Mason is what set Post 100 apart from its rivals.
Mason, coming off a freshman season at UNC-Greensboro in which he had a 4-2 record and eight saves, had arguably the most dominating season ever seen in the area.
He finished with a 15-1 record with six saves, a 0.69 ERA and 233 strikeouts in 131 1/3 innings in 27 appearances (14 starts). Mason was at his best in the playoffs by going 10-1 with five saves and a 47 2/3-inning streak of scoreless innings.
The 233 strikeouts and 47 2/3-inning streak remain N.C. state records and he is the only N.C. pitcher to account for more than 20 Legion wins since 1955; J.W. “Lefty” went 21-4 for 1940 ALWS champion Albemarle and Tommy Eaton went 15-2 with seven saves for a 1955 Salisbury ALWS participant.
Mason had a confidence that some called cockiness when he was on the pitcher’s mound or playing third base for Post 100.
But David Wise, who was an all-conference catcher at NCAA Division II Limestone, said whatever criticism Mason received for his self-assuredness was misguided.
“He was the type of guy that if he’s on your team you love him but if he’s on the other team you hate him,” David Wise said. “And we loved him because he wanted the ball more than anybody.
“He threw hard for a high school and Legion pitcher. His slider was his best pitch. He had the best control of his slider and his breaking ball of anyone I’ve ever caught. He hardly missed a spot with it.”
Other pitching standouts were Halubka (9-1 record, 3.77 ERA), Justice (8-3 record with 1 save, 3.04 ERA), Heafner (4-1 record with 4 saves, 2.36 ERA), McDonald (3-2 record, 2.79 ERA) and Beam (2-1 record, 4.32 ERA).
Mason’s biggest moments came in the second and third rounds of the playoffs – or when Post 100 was challenged most.
After sweeping Steele Creek in the opening round 3-0, Cherryville lost 8-5 at home against Hickory in the opening round of the Area IV quarterfinals.
Mason suffered his lone pitching defeat after yielding five runs (four earned) in what he considers his most dismal outing of the season.
“I could feel that I didn’t have my stuff that game,” Mason said. “I didn’t know what it was. I wasn’t throwing as hard as I normally throw and my pitches were off. I just vowed to come back.”
Did he ever.
Starting with his next effort two days later, Mason would close out the season by allowing just five runs in the next 72 1/3 innings with eight wins and five saves in 14 appearances. That stretch included the record-setting 47 2/3-inning scoreless streak.
“I just got locked in and my defense was exceptional,” Mason said. “You had Gravy (David Wise) at catcher blocking pitches and Jay at shortstop making play after play. You have to have those kinds of players around you when you make a run like that.
“It also was against people who had never seen me before. I think that had a lot to do with it.”
Mason was so “locked in” that when Cherryville trailed three games to one against bitter rival Caldwell County in a best-of-seven semifinal series that sent its winner to the state tournament coming from behind wasn’t as challenging as many might suspect.
“We had every trust and belief in Bobby and trust and belief in each other,” David Wise said. “Of course, you do get a little tight when you’re down 3-1 in a series but we just had guys step up and produce.”
Mason said David Wise gave a motivational speech for the ages after a 12-7 loss at Caldwell County gave Post 29 a 3-1 series lead and had Cherryville one loss away from seeing its season – and its dreams of greatness – come to an end.
“Gravy stepped up and gave us that speech after that game,” Mason said. “And Bobby let him do it. When he finished, Bobby didn’t say anything. Gravy said all that needed to be said – and we came back and won.”
The three straight wins featured high drama and lots of off-field antics.
Mother Nature nearly got involved when Post 100 began its comeback with a 15-0 victory that was shortened to seven innings by the 10-run mercy rule. However, the drama was in whether or not threatening weather would allow the the contest to reach 4 1/2 innings to make it official after Cherryville scored eight times in the second inning for a 9-0 lead.
With rain near Cherryville’s Fraley Field, Post 100 purposely got out in the fourth inning while Caldwell County was reprimanded repeatedly by the home plate umpire for delaying tactics in the fifth inning.
Eventually, the weather threat disappeared and Cherryville scored three runs in the fifth and sixth innings as Halubka completed an 8-hit shutout.
Mason pitched seven innings the following night in an 8-2 victory that tied the series at 3 with the decisive 7th game slated for Cherryville’s Fraley Field one day later.
And with the grandstands jammed, Caldwell County roared ahead 5-1 and 6-4 before Mason came on in relief in the sixth inning.
With Caldwell County fans jeering him throughout, Mason starred on the mound and at the plate; The pitcher yielded one hit in the final four innings and Post 100’s offense came alive as Brock Alexander, David Wise and Mason each homered to lead a come-from-behind 12-6 victory.
After his home run in the eighth inning gave Cherryville a 10-6 lead, Mason touched home plate and pulled up his right shirt sleeve to flex his muscles at the Caldwell County fans who had been jeering him. He did the same thing as he was being mobbed after the final out of the game was recorded.
“That Caldwell County series was epic,” said Mason, who now works as a Verizon Wireless salesman in Greenville, S.C. “Their fans were all over me about stuff that was outside of the game. They weren’t on me about my play. They were attacking me and trying to get in my head about off the field issues. But that drove me.”
Said Heafner: “He was the biggest competitor I’ve ever played with and how could you not love playing with him. He was a ‘everything for the team’ type of guy.”
After surviving that series, Mason keep rolling along, picking up a save in the second game of a 3-0 best-of-5 Area IV championship series against Pineville, winning the second game and saving the championship game of the N.C. state tournament in Fayetteville and winning three of the Post 100’s five victories in the Southeast Regional in Rock Hill, S.C., to advance to the World Series.
Including the upcoming World Series, Mason maxxed out the Legion rule that limited pitchers to 12 innings in a 72-hour period four times in the final five weeks of the season.
“We maximized the pitching rule with Mason in a way that not many guys could do,” Reynolds said. “We were living in the moment and didn’t have any repercussions from it with him.”
If anything, Mason was pitching at such a high level that the extra workload had him pitching the best of a career that would eventually include seven years of professional baseball and an advance to Class AAA – or one step below the major leagues.
“He was such a difference-maker,” Lastra said. “When he got hot, we were playing great teams in the Area IV playoffs, the state tournament, the regionals and the World Series and he just kept throwing zeroes on the scoreboard and kept striking most everybody out.
“The pitching we were facing was tougher but we were still hitting and the hitters we faced were better but he was still getting everybody out.”
In the World Series, Mason outdueled eventual major league pitcher Kris Johnson in a 3-1 Cherryville opening-round victory over Blue Springs, Mo.
After losing 9-6 to Haddon Heights, N.J., in its second game, Post 100 advanced to the single-elimination semifinals by banging out 15 hits and three home runs in a 12-4 win over Northridge, Cal.
In the semifinals, with Mason starting and going the first six innings for the win, the offense erupted for 11 hits that included seven home runs in a a 14-1 victory over Corvallis, Ore., that was shortened to seven innings by the 10-run mercy rule.
Unfortunately, a fourth inning collision between shortstop Heafner and left fielder Shane Summer cost Cherryville its projected starting pitcher and season-long leadoff batter for the championship game against Rochester, Minn.
“The really bittersweet thing is that Jay Heafner broke his toe in the semifinal game when he was scheduled to pitch and we just needed three innings from him since Mason had six innings left to pitch,” Reynolds said. “Losing Jay meant we had to put in a different shortstop, lost a top hitter and had to change our lineup.”
Heafner remembers that Reynolds initially thought the injury wouldn’t be so significant.
“He thought I just jammed it or something,” Heafner said. “When we went to the hospital just to check, they said, ‘It’s not good.’ They told me I had dislocated a bone in my foot and they put a cast on it. When I got back to the hotel, Bobby saw me in a wheelchair and he was like, ‘Oh my God.'”
Despite that adversity and having to face eventual four-year Minnesota Twins’ minor-leaguer Aaron Craig, Cherryville actually took a quick 2-0 lead.
But Rochester, Minn., scored three times in the third, once more in the fourth and tallied an unearned run off Mason in the eighth inning.
Still, Post 100 had a late-game rally that came close to giving the team a championship.
Lastra, who had no home runs in his first 115 at-bats of the season, came up with two outs and two runners aboard – Walls and Alexander had singled earlier in the inning – and drove a 1-2 pitch after fouling off a pair of 2-strike pitches to the warning track before it was caught to give Rochester the 5-2 national title game victory.
“My only goal when I came up, knowing I could be the last out, was to not strikeout,” Lastra said. “I was going to put the ball in play.
“My memory was that it was 0-2 to start with and I felt like I fouled out seven pitches. That’s how long that at-bat felt like at the time.. I thought I fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch after pitch.
“And I know their outfield was not playing deep with me but I remember hitting it to dead center and I thought I caught it well and saw the centerfielder running to the fence. And when I saw him running back, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s going to be a home run.’
“Then he obviously turns around and catches it at the warning track.”
By the end of that fall, Lastra would enjoy more success as Cherryville High’s football quarterback during during Georgia wide receiving standout and NFL hopeful Kenneth Harris’ senior season.
Lastra would set career (3,334 yards), single season (2,062) and single game (305) passing records as Harris would catch 69 passes for 1,403 yards and 17 touchdowns that season. While Lastra’s records would later be broken by Cameron Lovelace and Grant Henderson, Harris’ records still stand.
“I will sit here and say 100 percent the only reason I was any good at quarterback was because of Kenneth Harris,” said Lastra, now a longtime Charlotte real estate salesman based out of the SouthPark area. “I don’t how many yards passing I had or how many yards receiving he had. But I’m sure that whatever I had was because of him getting the most of it.”
Lastra remains certain that his team would’ve won the 2003 ALWS if not for Heafner’s injury.
“Had Jay not gotten hurt, we would’ve won that World Series,” Lastra said. “Jay was obviously a great hitter but more than that he was the leadoff batter and he was always going to put the ball in play. That gave us confidence. We’d sit back and think, ‘Well, Jay can hit him so we can hit him.’ And that’s not even talking about how good he was with the glove and as a leader.
“So when was out of the lineup, it was a tremendous momentum shifter.”
David Wise agrees.
“I feel like if you gave us 10 chances against that team, we’d win nine out of 10,” said David Wise, who later was a Post 100 assistant for 12 years and a Burns High baseball coach for eight years before starting his own landscaping business six years ago. “It definitely hurt us if not cost us that opportunity. He was probably going to pitch. It definitely affected our mojo or whatever you would call it.
“As a player, you try not to let it bother you and still play. And that’s what we did. We just came up short and had an off night on a night that it was bad to have one.”
Heafner went to have a Hall of Fame career at Davidson College that was highlighted by a 2005 season in which he won Southern Conference player of the year honors over College of Charleston’s Brett Gardner (a future New York Yankees centerfielder). Heafner also spent two years playing in the Texas Rangers’ organization. One year after his release, Heafner began a scouting career in the Rangers’ organization that has netted several players, among them former South Point High standout Jeffrey Springs in 2015 out of Appalachian State.
Heafner admits missing the final game was challenging but also maintains positive memories from the playoff run.
“It was just a gut punch because it was tough to watch the championship game from the bench,” Heafner said. “It was just awful.
“Obviously it would’ve been great to win. But, honestly, I don’t think the memories would’ve been any better because of what we accomplished and, more importantly, just the fun we had.
“It was a great experience.”