More than a championship: 1974 Manteo High School baseball team to be honored 50 years after state win

Published 7:45 am Thursday, May 2, 2024

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By Ken Mann

The Manteo High School Redskins 1974 baseball team will be honored May 2, 2024 for winning the school’s first state championship. The team will be recognized at the Coy Tillett Baseball Field prior to the game between Manteo and the Camden Bruins. Each member of the team and the coaches will be introduced and will receive a state championship ring.

George Pearce, assisted by Terry Wheeler, coached Manteo in 1974, defeating Cullowhee 2-0 in the playoffs, to take the title. Coach Pearce and the Redskins went on to win the state championship again in 1976. Coach Pearce speaks with pride about all of his teams, remembering the early days when they had ten players and only nine uniforms and no bus, but he said the 1974 team was special, and you never forget the excitement when you win that first state championship.

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There are many interesting side stories about the ’74 team, one of which did not draw much attention at the time, but is also worthy of recognition. A young lady named Karen Johnston Phillips played on the baseball team and was the first female to play on a Manteo baseball team and maybe the first female to play on a men’s team in North Carolina. Johnston was a standout athlete in women’s basketball at Manteo High and came from a very athletic family. Her father Johnny Johnston, was the golf coach at Wake Forest when Arnold Palmer was on the team and her sister, Cathy Johnston-Forbes was a professional golfer for 23 years. When asked about having a girl on the team, Manteo pitcher Steve Daniels said when she stepped up to the plate for batting practice, he never let up on his curveball.

Karen recently shared these memories: “As I recall, when I asked Coach Pearce if it would be possible for me to try out for the team, he was ok with it but said he needed to check on some things first. He contacted the NC High School Athletic Association to find out if the team would be disqualified from the state championship if there was a girl on the team. They gave him the green light and the rest is history.

“When I told my dad that I was going out for the baseball team, he was so excited that he went out and bought me a brand-new glove. I can’t remember who, but someone gave me an old pair of cleats to wear. I practiced just as hard as anyone out there, but I wasn’t as experienced, so mostly I sat on the bench and kept the team score book and cheered my teammates on. Coach did put me in a few times when we were way ahead.

“I remember we were playing Hatteras, at Hatteras, and we must have been ahead by a good bit, as coach put me in to bat. After the first pitch I heard the Hatteras pitcher exclaim, ‘It’s a girl!’ The count was 2 and 2, coach gave me the bunt signal, I missed, and was struck out. The Hatteras pitcher was elated but not me. All my teammates were really supportive though and told me ‘Good try.’ They were a great bunch of guys and treated me no differently, especially at practice. Coach would hit just as hard to me at second base as he did everyone else. Winning the State Championship was just icing on the cake!”

Two pairs of brothers were on the team. Kenny Kee and his brother Stan both played and it was not unusual to see the fence lined up at every game with their mother, cousins, aunts and uncles. As the team continued to win, the crowds continued to increase and Coach Wheeler remembered how some fans even sat on top of their cars and trucks to see the action. He agreed the fans were like a 10th man on the field and not only cheered them on at home games, but often traveled to support the team at away games as well.

The two other siblings on the team were Tom and Sam Daniels. Sam was the only member of the team to move up and play at a higher level when he was drafted by the San Deigo Padres in 1982. It should be noted that Sam, along with Barry Sawyer, were too young to play in 1974 and served as co-managers for the team. Both will be honored for their contributions as well.

Reverend R. O. Denton, the father of second baseman Buddy Denton, pastored the Assembly of God in Wanchese at the time. Pastor Denton often came out and prayed with the team at practice and before the games. Many members of the team attended church together, no doubt because of the positive influence of the Dentons. Pastor Denton invited a family friend who had been a professional pitcher to throw batting practice for the boys. After standing in the batter’s box facing 90-mile-per-hour fastballs, the ’74 Redskins were ready to take on any pitcher in the Tarheel State. Buddy Denton, Harry Niser and Ken Mann went into the ministry and credit their time on the team with having a tremendous impact on their lives.

As you might imagine, the team members traveled down many different roads of life; some to college and the military, some straight to work and getting married and starting families. Looking back, all seemed to make important contributions to the Outer Banks community and the nation. Shortstop Roger Griffith, the quickest man on the infield, kept his love for speed alive when he served a career in the United States Air Force, flying fighter jets and later working with Delta Airlines. He said this about his time on the team: “Moving to Manteo and finishing high school there changed my life for the better. I have so many people in Manteo I would like to thank, starting with ALL of you guys that accepted me the very first day I started school there, so THANK YOU!”

Coach Terry Wheeler went on to lead Dare County as its manager, while Phillip Etheridge served a full career as a proud Dare County deputy; centerfielder and businessman RV Owens served the state as a member of the North Carolina Department of Transportation; Ken Mann chaired the NC First Flight Centennial Commission; Mike Parsons returned from college to teach physical education at Manteo Elementary School and the College of The Albemarle, while others on the team, like Greg Roberts, Stan Newman and Robert Heroux, worked in their own successful businesses.

Coach Pearce liked to win, but his time as coach is remembered more for the personal attention he gave to each player, than the final score of a game or the win loss record for the year.  After the 16-3 championship season, he continued to coach at Manteo for a total of 26 years and his #14 jersey was retired and hangs in the press box at the Coy Tillet Field, which is named in his honor.

Sadly, over the past fifty years, five members of the team have died, including Tom Daniels, brother of Sam, Richard Breunig, Officer Phillip Etheridge, Johnny Parrish and Michael Buckner. Their families will also receive championship rings in honor of their loved ones.

Fifty years ago, there were only two high schools in Dare County, one in Hatteras and one in Manteo, so the 1974 season truly brought the Outer Banks community together in a way that is not likely to happen again.

For most, it was more than a game or a season of baseball, it was a life-changing series of events that exemplified what a community and small group of teenagers could do when they accepted each other and unselfishly worked together, committed to a common cause. More than one game was won, when one of the players had to make a sacrifice.

Everyone is invited to come out and honor the 1974 Manteo High School baseball state champions and enjoy the game. The ceremony will take place at 6:30 p.m. and game time is at 7 p.m.

Play ball!