Play ball! Central Kitsap catchers catch the fever

Olympic High School fastpitch catchers Brittany Bird (left) and Sydney Thompson pose after practice Monday. The two will rotate catching duties this season to help Bird as she recovers from knee problems suffered last year. Both agreed that the position takes its toll when working behind the plate, but said the pain is worth it when protecting home plate. - Mike Baldwin/staff photo
Olympic High School fastpitch catchers Brittany Bird (left) and Sydney Thompson pose after practice Monday. The two will rotate catching duties this season to help Bird as she recovers from knee problems suffered last year. Both agreed that the position takes its toll when working behind the plate, but said the pain is worth it when protecting home plate.
— image credit: Mike Baldwin/staff photo

Crouched in the dirt with her eyes sweeping across the diamond Monday evening, catcher Sydney Thompson is a field general.

She runs the game to her pace and coordinates with eight teammates at all times, a demand of the position. But the junior Olympic High School fastpitch player never forgets to take care of her most sacred possession in the game – home plate.

Her message for opposing runners looking to come into her home?

“Don’t think about coming here,” she said. “That’s my territory out there. I don’t want anyone messing with my base. I’m going to put up a fight for my team to make sure nobody scores.”

Thompson, a transfer from North Kitsap High School, is one of a collection of high school fastpitch and baseball catchers who will start the season next week, breaking in stiff gloves and popping donut weights from the bats.

Although she wears a different jersey from Olympic’s rivals in Central Kitsap and Bremerton, and plays a different game than her cohorts in baseball, the catchers agree the position lends itself to unsung heroes.

With their backs to parents and friends and faces hidden behind a mask, catchers play an important and not widely understood role that requires responsibility and a low center of gravity. They’re also likely to get roughed up, sporting dirt marks from knees to shoulders.

“I’m a pretty aggressive person so I like being in charge out there,” Thompson added. “It’s a dirty position, so no matter what you do, you’re going to get dirty. But it’s all worth it because you could be a part of the deciding point of the game, so you’ve got to be sure to protect it.”

Catching a baseball or fastpitch game takes a toll on any athlete, let alone high school students. Catchers are required to constantly squat and often confront runners, whose prime directive is to go in cleats first and move the catcher out of the base path.

To keep catchers fresh, and minimize injury, teams rotate their catchers in a similar way that pitchers are rested.

Trojans catcher Devin Atalig is currently playing his second season as catcher after shifting from shortstop. The transition was seamless for the son of a former minor leaguer with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Atalig’s father, Oscar Castro, played catcher for the franchise’s Double-A club in the early 1980s, and taught the Olympic standout everything he knew.

Atalig learned how to block the plate, throw runners out and patrol the field from his father.

“I fell in love with it,” Atalig said.

Taking charge and taking the blame

Senior catcher Max Hayes, one of four catchers in the Bremerton High School rotation, believes his position requires a special type of athlete who doesn’t need a lot of glory, like a center in football. He knows all too well, having played center for the Knights football team last season.

Catching has its ups and downs.

“You’re running the show, but if something goes wrong, you get the blame for it,” he added. “If you miss a block in football, you get yelled at, but if a running back scores a touchdown then he gets all the credit.”

Fellow Bremerton catcher Conner Wales agreed with his teammate, but said the responsibility of the position brings with it a sense of accomplishment.

“Your mistakes are magnified,” the senior added. “But you help the pitcher out with that extra effort, and that’s such a great feeling.”

Bremerton baseball head coach Rob Tomlinson said Monday that catcher is one of the most important roles in baseball. He added that he’s training Wales, Hayes, Tyler Harris and Bud Coy to manage the team for the first time this season. The four are currently running scenarios with different pitchers to learn the skill.

“He sees the entire field,” Tomlinson said. “In order for them to control the entire game, we’ve got to teach it.”

Central Kitsap High School sophomore catcher Mary Barga said she enjoys the role of running the game from home plate, but the responsibilities have their downside as well.

“It can be stressful when you know you need to make a tough call out there,” she added. “It’s kind of hard for everyone else to know what’s going on because nobody else shares that same relationship with the pitcher.”

Keeping the lines open

Communication is vital for the relationship between pitchers and catchers. When the opposing team loads the infield bases with runners, it’s up to the catcher to reassure the team’s hurler to keep cool.

“I want to let him know I’m there for him,” Atalig said. “It’s a good chance to get away from the game for a second, and talk about how it’s a nice day outside.”

The Central Kitsap fastpitch team currently rotates catching duties between Barga and junior Kari Fetters. The two share a common bond working a job that relies on an effective partnership with pitchers.

“We make pitchers look good,” Fetters said. “It’s great when you make the right call, but it can backfire when you call the wrong pitch.”

Olympic’s Thompson agreed, keeping in contact with the hurler and seven other position players is crucial for running a smooth game, she said.

“You’ve got to rely on your outfielders, and they rely on you because you can see the whole field,” she added. “It’s not just you playing catcher, it’s the whole team in terms of communication.”

Heads up

Both Barga and Fetters use a one-piece mask and keep them on unless there’s a pop-up fly ball. Timing is essential for catchers, so keeping their head gear on could save seconds.

Olympic’s Atalig believes the same, sporting a hockey mask. His favorite head gear is the two-piece, but he’s sticking to the one-piece grill so he doesn’t have to pay for additional equipment. The Bremerton Knights’ foursome uses both two- and one-piece helmets to protect themselves from potentially dangerous foul balls.

The concern for safety also involves umpires who work with catchers every inning. Atalig said he, like most catchers, have a special relationship with those deciding strikes and balls.

“They seem to like me being there for them,” he added. “I want to block the ball and that saves them from the pain, because you don’t want to get hit at that speed.”

Paying the physical toll

The sting of an errant foul ball isn’t the only concern for high school catchers. The ongoing kneeling for hours at a time can create problems for baseball and fastpitch players, like it did for Lady Trojans sophomore Brittany Bird. She will start as catcher for Olympic this season and said this week that it’s going to be a challenge after dealing with bad knees last year.

“I’m going to work through it,” she added. “You forget about pain when you’re out there. You’re mentally in the game, so that’s what you’re focused on. You don’t really worry about the pain until you’re actually sitting down at home later.”

Bremerton’s Coy doesn’t let a bum knee or sore shoulder keep him out of the action for long. He believes the wear and tear comes with the territory.

“Just grab an ice pack after you go out there and do it all again,” he said. “Then, you go at it hard the next day.”

Hitting the diamond

March 14:

Bremerton baseball at Bainbridge (4 p.m.)

March 16:

Central Kitsap baseball vs. Stadium (4 p.m.)

March 18:

Klahowya baseball at Port Angeles (4 p.m.)

Olympic baseball at Kingston (4 p.m.)

March: 21:

Klahowya fastpitch vs. Bremerton (4 p.m.)

Olympic fastpitch at North Mason (4:15 p.m.)

March 22:

Central Kitsap fastpitch vs. Stadium (4 p.m.)

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