North Adams Transcript
The Hoosac Valley softball team knew it had one of North County's best pitchers heading into the season. The problem was they didn't have anyone to catch the ball when Caroline Tomkowicz threw it.
The Hurricanes were lacking a catcher. It didn't take long to fill that void, however. Senior Alexis Bushika asked coach Morgan Shafer if she could take over behind the plate when she wasn't pitching for the Hurricanes. She spent all winter working on becoming a better catcher and learning the position.
It was pretty clear the Hurricanes had found their catcher for the year after the first game of the season. She's become such a force behind the plate that it's tough to put someone else back there.
"Alexis is really athletic and she is just talented at softball in general," Shafer said. "I was very excited when she asked. I didn't have much doubt she would be a good catcher, I just didn't know she would be as good as she is."
Hoosac wasn't the only team in need of a backstop. Mount Greylock and Drury also had holes at the position. McCann Tech was the only North County team not looking to fill a vacancy behind the plate. Danielle Gibeau returned to backstop the Hornets.
Kendal Frye was tabbed to fill the role for Greylock, while freshman Ingrid Olsen has taken over for the Blue Devils behind the plate.
When Bushika wasn't in the pitchers' circle for the Hurricanes last season, she could be found at a variety of different positions, so she figured why not add catcher to her repertoire.
She has already proven tough to steal on. She's thrown out three runners trying to take second base in the team's first nine games.
Frye took over the job with a wealth of experience under her belt already. She played the outfield last year, knowing once Caitie Benoit graduated she would most likely take over behind the dish. The transition was a fairly easy one. She served as the team's backup catcher last season and worked with pitcher Heather Tomkowicz in practice.
"It hasn't been that tough because I have caught before," Frye said. "But you do have to get used to the pitchers. Heather and I work really well together, so it's been easy."
All three catchers have to manage all-star pitchers behind the plate, a big responsibility in itself. Drury's Cat Record, Hoosac's Caroline Tomkowicz and Greylock's Heather Tomkowicz made up last season's All-Transcript pitching rotation.
Having a catcher behind the plate that the pitcher feels comfortable with and trusts can go a long way toward building a successful team. Both Heather Tomkowicz and Frye are juniors this year and have known each other for a long time.
"Kendal and I have been playing Greylock softball together since the seventh grade, so we know each other very well," Heather said. "It's very comfortable with us. I feel really comfortable with her behind the plate. I know she's going to do a great job back there."
Amber Iacuessa was Drury's catcher last season. She moved to shortstop this season for the Blue Devils. Olsen didn't have varsity experience, but she had experience catching at the junior varsity level. Coach Mary Ann Maroni thought it was a good time to bring her into the varsity game.
"She's already gotten better as the year has gone on," Maroni said. "She had very little varsity catching experience. I would send her down to catch JV last year. My thinking was the more she caught the better."
Breaking in a young catcher can only help a team heading into the future. A catcher must know where the best place to pitch a batter is. Many coaches allow their catchers to call what pitches the pitcher will throw. That means the catcher needs to be aware of who the batter is and what they are capable of doing. They are also responsible for knowing where the batter is standing in the box and where the best location for the ball is.
"At first, it was a struggle, I didn't have the signs down very well," Olsen said. "I didn't know what to throw. I didn't know whether to go inside or outside. But we've come a long way and we work well together now."
A catcher can often take a beating behind the plate. They can be hit by foul tips, absorb collisions, and catch the ball -- no matter how hard their pitcher throws it.
It can be intimidating for a young catcher to step in and catch varsity pitching, but Olsen has shown improvement since the first day of the season.
"Cat throws hard, and it's easy to lose the ball," Maroni said. "Not only does she have to focus on catching the ball, but she has to focus on where the batters are in the box, and where the defense is. It can be tough for a young catcher. There is a lot to it."
Bushika's experience in the circle has helped her be on the same page as Tomkowicz this season. Shafer has let the duo call their own pitches this season, allowing the them to work closely.
"Her knowledge about pitching is very helpful for her and Caroline," Shafer said. "I can trust them to make good decisions on what to throw and where to throw. Caroline can talk to her about specific pitches and she knows how to throw them and really how to help her along. It's been a good match."
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On Twitter: @NAT_DigitalSam