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Catching on quickly

Hernando and Central move their best players behind plate.

By FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003


Kristi Langworthy gets frustrated when her team loses.

She worries about aggravating the knee injury she sustained during volleyball. She wonders if she would be better off playing another position.

Samantha Downing gets beaten up by foul tips. She can't stand squatting behind the plate. And, like Langworthy, Downing sometimes wonders if she would be better off somewhere else.

Yet, offered the chance, both would stay at catcher.

Hernando's Langworthy and Central's Downing, among the county's top seniors, agreed to move behind the plate this season to help their teams even though they seldom had played the position and are unlikely to do so in college.

Their coaches were willing to sacrifice their talents at their natural positions to fill holes at catcher.

Why? Because, with the possible exception of pitcher, there is no more important spot on the field.

"You definitely want to be strong up the middle: catcher, pitcher, centerfield," Springstead coach Craig Swartout said.

"If those three positions are filled with players who can play, you're definitely ahead of the game," he said.

There was a time coaches tried to hide their weakest fielders beneath a stack of catcher's equipment, stick them behind the plate and hope nobody noticed.

Not any more.

"Teams that you play, you see their better athletes are catchers," Swartout said. "It's gotten to be a prestige position."

Catchers can prevent teams from stealing and moving into scoring position. They can block pitches, keeping runners from advancing. They can call pitches, calm pitchers and set fielders.

From their crouch behind home, they can control the game.

"When I play catcher, I find that I'm more into the game than I am in the outfield," Downing said.

"In the outfield, I might get two balls a game. Here, I get every single ball that comes to me."

Langworthy played infield most of her life before moving to catcher during the second game of the preseason Ridgewood Classic. A natural second baseman, she previously played only five games at catcher, and none of consequence.

"I guess I can't really say no," Langworthy said. "If they think they need a better person back there and they think I can do it, I guess I have to say all right."

Downing started the season in centerfield but was switched to catcher in the second inning of the fifth game. She dallied at the position one summer but never played it regularly.

"I wanted to help the team out, so I went back there," Downing said.

Langworthy's move started a chain reaction that sent Scottisha Scrivens from third base to shortstop, Brittney Naugler or Amanda Savoie to third and Whitney Massingale from outfield to second base.

Downing's switch was less complicated. She simply changed places with Brittany Hasty.

Downing "is the one who told me, 'I can do it, coach,"' said Central coach Benny Martinez, a former PONY Baseball catcher. "She knew we needed it and sacrificed herself to go back there and do it."

Springstead had an outstanding catcher in Caitlin DeCristofaro, who will play next season at St.Petersburg College. But if something happened to DeCristofaro, Swartout said he would not hesitate to make a similar move.

"I would definitely put one of my better athletes back there," he said.

Swartout has a couple of options. Leftfielder Ashley Liberatore and rightfielder Heather Benson have expressed interest in catching, and Stevie Monohan plays the position for the junior varsity.

There is one player Swartout would not move: pitcher Emily Eicholtz.

"Emily will never catch," Swartout said. "You can put that in capital letters."

Langworthy and Downing are progressing well in their first season behind the plate.

Langworthy has thrown out most of the runners who have attempted to steal against her and has allowed just one run on a passed ball. Downing has learned to block balls in the dirt and adjust to foul tips.

"She got two foul tips (Thursday) night where she had difficulty in the past getting rid of the mask," Martinez said. "Now, she's beginning to play it like a master."

Rather than struggling at the plate under the burden of their new responsibilities, Langworthy and Downing said they have improved since they moved to catcher.

Entering Thursday's game against Citrus, Downing was batting a county-best .583 with 9 doubles, a home run and 9 RBIs. Langworthy was hitting .333 with 12 runs scored and seven RBIs.

"This year has been my best so far hitting," Langworthy said.

Calling pitches has allowed Downing to pick up the rotation on the ball and anticipate what a pitcher might throw in a particular situation.

'The ball looks bigger to me," Downing said. "That's the reason I'm hitting so much better this year."

Both had concerns about the switch.

Downing didn't want to leave centerfield, where she roamed freely. Langworthy worried about the toll catching would take on the knee she sprained during volleyball season. In fact, she might not have made the move had she not accepted a scholarship to Pasco-Hernando Community College.

"If I hadn't signed with a college yet, then I probably wouldn't be catching, because I would have told coach I have to concentrate on my main positions so people can look at me," Langworthy said. "Since I'd already signed, it didn't bother me to have to catch."

Downing hopes to play center in college. Though she has not received an offer, she said she wasn't concerned about switching positions for her senior year.

"I wasn't thinking about college this year," Downing said. "I was just thinking about winning this year, so I wasn't worried about giving up my position."

Martinez said catching could help Downing, whether she plays the position in college or not. He is working with her to try to quicken her release.

"I think coaches will look at that when they go to recruit her," Martinez said.

"I think (Downing will be helped by) the versatility and the sacrificial thing, 'If somebody can't do it, I'll give it a try for the team,"' he said.

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