No masking the disdain for catching

Catcher: Coaches put a priority on filling this position, but most players shun the physical and mental pounding that comes with it.

Softball

March 20, 2002|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

On a daily basis, Casey Brengle endures the pain of squatting, absorbs breathtaking blows from foul balls and braces herself for the oncoming charge of a runner heading home.

That's the world of a catcher - a calling that Brengle is more than comfortable with.

"It's a lot of work," said Brengle, the starting catcher for Class 4A state champion Westminster. "But it's nothing excruciating."

In softball, no position is regarded with equal parts apprehension and passion as the catcher. It's a role that requires a high pain threshold and immense desire.

To many coaches, finding a catcher is one of the top two priorities before the season begins.

"It's probably the most critical position besides pitcher," said Mount de Sales coach Pete Waskiewicz. "If you don't have a good catcher, you're hurting."

Field general, quarterback, defensive anchor - those are a few of the synonyms for catcher.

In previous years, the only requirement for being a catcher was the ability to throw your body before a pitch to prevent the ball from rolling to the backstop.

But as the game has evolved, so too has the position. More pitchers are developing fastballs that can blow past a batter at 65 mph, and are adding changeups and curves that unpredictably dance across the plate.

Many coaches say they also look for catchers who can chase down drag bunts, gauge hitters' tendencies to swing at certain pitches and keep runners from stealing bases.

"To me, they're the captains of the infield," said former McDonogh coach Mickey Deegan, who had been involved with softball for 26 years before retiring after last season. "They're involved in every play, and they need to be fierce and fearless."

Coaches agree that good catchers are also leaders who aren't shy about voicing their opinions. After all, only the catcher can see the entire field from her perspective and move her teammates around to counter a batter's hitting preferences.

"A lot of calls have to originate from the catcher," said River Hill coach Dave Vitagliano. "Aside from the physical demands of the position, the mental demands are just as great."

Brengle was a shortstop through her first seven years of organized softball before a summer-league coach persuaded her to switch to catcher.

"I never had a thought to be a catcher," Brengle said. "But once I got there, I loved it."

Melissa Tewey, a Northeast senior who converted from second base about five years ago, said she enjoys the responsibility of playing behind the plate.

"You have to call out everything and think on your feet," Tewey said. "You're a leader out there. ... It was a fit for me."

Finding quality catchers continues to be difficult. Many players either want to pitch or play the infield.

Few are willing to hunker down every inning behind a sweaty mask, chest protector and shin guards.

"It's not a glorious position," said Catholic coach Len Tiesi, who is searching for an everyday catcher. "I tell my girls that most colleges are looking for pitching first and then a catcher. If you don't have the ability to develop as a pitcher and you're looking for money to go to college, becoming a catcher is the way to go."

One program that has had exceptional success with developing catchers is Archbishop Spalding. When Missy Gunther tore ligaments in her catching hand in the Cavaliers' final scrimmage last season, coach Linda Taylor found a volunteer in shortstop Kristen Marll.

"Most teams barely have one," Taylor said. Marll eventually was named to the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland's A Conference All-Star team.

"Here, I had two," she added. "They're a rare breed. If you have a freshman who comes in with great ability, you're fortunate to have her for four years, and you pray that someone will come along later."

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