Gaston Braves made the most of their first state tournament appearance in 2014

By Richard Walker

The Gaston Braves American Legion baseball team has been successful since it was born out of the combination of Belmont Post 144 and Stanley Post 266 in 1997.

Gaston Braves’ manager Bradley King (right) talks with Derek Perry during a Post 144-266 game.

But the Braves’ greatest success came in the summer of 2014 when it advanced all the way to the N.C. state tournament championship game in Lexington.

That summer saw coach Mark King guide a team that included several future college baseball players and one future Clemson college football national champion and NFL player in Tanner Muse.

The team entered the season that ended with a 15-8 record and second round Area IV playoff loss the year before.

Muse, Aaron Biggerstaff, Matt Grimmett, Sawyer McGraw and Patrick Murphy were returning from the 2013 team and newcomers Adam Andrew, Sean Carder, Logan Edgerton, Chase Hannifin, Christian Hilty, Zac Hollar, Adam Hutson, Aaron Mauldin, Mitchell Painter, Derek Perry, Tyler Price, Alon Smith and Mason Smith were added to the roster.

After losing 6-5 to perennial power Cherryville in the season opener, the Braves won their next 15 games to win the Eastern Division title and enter the playoffs as one of the Area IV favorites.

Post 144-266 swept Rutherford County, Cherryville and Asheville in best-of-five series to clinch a state playoff berth and increase its winning streak to a Gaston County-record 24 games.

It earned the Braves a best-of-three Area IV final against a 36-1 Shelby that also swept through its first three series with nine straight wins.

The matchup was for seeding purposes since both teams knew they were playing in the state tournament, but the intensity of the series was high – and foreshadowed how fiercely they would battle in three future meetings.

Shelby got the better of the Area IV final, winning 6-0 at South Point High’s Raider Field and 5-3 at Shelby’s Veterans Field at Keeter Stadium to take the No. 2 Area IV playoff seed into the state tournament slated for Holt-Moffitt Field in Lexington.

The opponent was defending 2013 state champion Wilmington Post 10.

Arriving in Lexington expecting to play at former minor league facility that opened in 1937 and is unique because of it’s high banked left field, the Braves had their opening round game moved to 20 miles away to High Point’s Finch Field after a rainstorm had soaked the Lexington field.

In High Point, Mauldin had three hits and Muse two hits and two RBIs as the Braves toppled Wilmington 4-3 to the surprise of many tournament observers.

The following day, Post 144-266 knocked off host Davidson County 7-1 behind the pitching of Smith and Grimmett shortly before off-field controversy would soon engulf the tournament.

Since High Point had routed Shelby 12-5 in the first winner’s bracket semifinal, the Braves were prepared to meet High Point in the winner’s bracket tournament final the next day.

Instead, tournament officials ruled High Point was out of the town because of an ineligible player and the Braves got a day off.

Future two-time Clemson national champion and NFL draft pick Tanner Muse was one of the 2014 Gaston Braves’ top hitters.

The next day – and after Shelby had beaten Wayne County in a matchup of teams that High Point had previously beaten – the Braves ended Shelby’s Area IV-record 36-game winning streak in an 8-1 victory. Biggerstaff started and pitched eight scoreless innings and Mauldin had three hits as Post 144-266 moved to the final day of the tournament knowing it would have to be beaten twice to keep it from a state title.

But that’s exactly what Shelby did as Post 82 knocked off the Braves 10-6 in the first game and 7-2 in the second game to wrap up the state title and leave the Braves as a disappointed runner-up.

Post 144-266 finished the season with a .320 team batting average that was led by Andrew’s .453. Other top hitters were Mauldin (.363), Muse (.360), Mason Smith (.357), Perry (.333), Hannifin (.327), Painter (.320) and Hilty (.313). Painter led the team in home runs with five and Muse (38), Painter (34) and Mason Smith (31) led the way in RBIs.

Grimmett (7-1 with one save), Alon Smith (7-1), Biggerstaff (6-1), Hollar (4-0 with one save), Murphy (2-0 with one save) and Edgerton (four saves) led the pitching staff.

The 27-5 overall record remains the best in Post 144-266’s 23-year history.