Magic behind the mask

Published April 13, 2007

DADE CITY - Kalee Burchfield sits in the dugout staring across a clay infield.

The sun was high. The air was stuffy. Another hot afternoon practice at Pasco was about to begin. Seniors like her relish the moment. She is in the final innings of a career that began when Mom was coach and she dropped more balls than she caught.

Over the years, Burchfield has blossomed into a seasoned captain. She's a leader with her glove, her bat and her voice.

The Pirates will ride many shoulders into the postseason. Burchfield has the backbone to carry them through it.

"She's been here four years," Pasco coach Shamalene Broner said. "She knows the program. No matter where she goes someone's going to be happy.

"It's a vital position and she seems to really enjoy it."

Burchfield fell into the catcher spot when someone got injured, and Burchfield was asked to put on the catcher's mask.

"I kept the ball in front of me for the most part," said Burchfield, recalling some of her first days behind the plate. "I was aggressive. We just kept with it."

Burchfield became Pasco's starting catcher as a freshman when an injury to another player opened another door. She has started almost every game since, saving her best statistical year for the final act.

Take her whopping .604 batting average and at least one hit in all but two games. Her five doubles, one triple and three home runs show she can hit for power. And after starting the season fifth in the batting order, she has crawled to third in the lineup.

She still refuses to consider .604 a success story.

"My goal," Burchfield said with a straight face, "was to hit 1.000 every game."

She swears she only recently took note of her hitting numbers.

The most important numbers have been Pasco's 18-3 record and No. 1 seed entering next week's Class 4A, District 8 tournament.

It is Burchfield's last shot at the state tournament, and her hitting will weigh heavily on Pasco's march. So will her ability to keep pitchers Colena Lazar and Liz Garcia on an even keel.

The catcher-pitcher relationship is vital.

"Trust is important," Burchfield said. "You have to trust what will happen in certain situations."

Burchfield has known Garcia since middle school and has had two seasons to develop a relationship with Lazar. The comfort level with both is at the point where a wink or a nod works as well as any string of words.

Burchfield has learned both pitching styles, whether handling the power of Lazar or the finesse of Garcia. The trio has combined for 10 shutouts and 15 games where Pasco has allowed two runs or fewer.

"She's good at keeping people up whether you strikeout or don't throw a good pitch," Garcia said. "She always tells you you did a good job and makes you laugh with a funny face or telling you to smile."

Teammates will miss her smile and ability to turn a volatile situation into a laugh or two. And her coach will miss having a concrete wall behind the plate.

"It's like a diamond in the rough," Broner said. It's hard to find a good catcher."

Izzy Gould can be reached at igould@tampabay.com or 727 580-5315.