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Demands of position can’t hide catchers’ ability

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With a game against visiting Bloomington North hanging in the balance on Thursday, Columbus North sophomore catcher Tommi Stowers noticed the Cougars’ Emily Liford had a crazy notion.

She was going to steal a base.

Liford had led off the eighth inning with a walk, and with the score 2-2, if she could get to second with no outs, the game certainly would turn in the Cougars’ favor.

So Liford broke toward second. Bad idea.

Stowers took the pitch from Molly Crowe and threw a rocket to second, the ball waiting for Liford as she went into her slide. Out. Threat over.

With the runner called out, Stowers beamed with excitement.

“Honestly, that is the best feeling,” Stowers said of throwing the runner out. “I cannoned that ball.”

In the bottom of the inning, North pushed across a run thanks to two wild pitches. The Bull Dogs put one in the win column.

In high school girls softball, no one is going to argue that the person standing on the mound is No. 1 in terms of importance. However, it might be just as difficult for coaches to find a quality catcher.

Unlike the pitching position, which is kind of like a quarterback in football in getting all the attention, a catcher’s job can be thankless.

Those balls that do get blocked in the dirt, and prevent a player from advancing, often are overlooked in the grand scheme. If the ball does get past, then the catcher looks bad.

Today, when Columbus North (4-4) hosts Columbus East (2-8) at 5 p.m. in the annual rivalry game, two of the state’s top catchers will be on display in the Bull Dogs’ Stowers and the Olympians’ Elyse Babb.

Fortunately for North coach Jerry Burton and East coach Sonny Stahl, they are both sophomores.

The featured star on a building program at East, Babb is not going to surprise anyone with her talent. Butler already has agreed to give her a softball scholarship when her high school days are finished.

While her offensive and defensive skills are impressive, Stahl said her most important contribution is taking over a game.

“Elyse is not only a captain on our team, she’s the director of our team,” Stahl said. “She’s back there, she sees everything that’s going on, and she calls all the pitches. I don’t call any pitches.

“She sees what’s going on; we communicate well, and she communicates well with the pitchers. That’s what you need with a good catcher, and I think she’s one of the best in the state.”

Babb loves her role and the fact Stahl has so much confidence in her.

“A catcher is considered the leader of the team because you can see everyone on the field,” she said. “I’ve been playing since I was 10, so it’s not like I just started playing last year. I’ve been playing for a long time, and I feel like I succeed at the position because I love it so much. I feel like it’s the position that I’m comfortable at, and I can reach my potential as a softball player.”

As a freshman last season, Babb proved she was ready to be a high school star. However, Stahl said she is even better now.

“Last year, she was a little timid, I thought, behind the plate,” Stahl said. “She wasn’t as boisterous, and I kept telling her all season, ‘You need to be more boisterous,’ and this year, she is. She’s stepped up to the plate, and she’s doing her job.”

Any area softball fan knows that Babb can do the job, but across town, North has a catcher who gets the job done as well.

With the Bull Dogs having a more established program than East, and its share of stars in years past, Stowers tends to blend into her surroundings.

“I know there is a good catcher at East,” Burton said. “But Columbus has two good catchers.”

In North’s split of two games on Saturday in the Brown County Invitational, Stowers had three extra-base hits (two doubles and a triple) that show up in the box score. What goes unnoticed is the job she does blocking balls in the dirt and preventing runners from advancing.

“That saves you ball games,” Burton said of blocking balls at the plate. “It saves you two to three games a year, and Tommi works hard at it.”

“I have a whole bunch of bruises,” Stowers said with a laugh.

Such is the life of a catcher.

Both Babb and Stowers can whip the ball around the field from a crouching position so runners have to be alert. If they stray too far from a base, it could result in a rally-killing out.

Against Bloomington North, Stowers made some snap throws to first, trying to catch the runner sleeping. It is a somewhat dangerous tactic in a close game, because if the ball gets past the fielder, it’s headed into the outfield.

“I trust my throws,” Stowers said.

Burton trusts his catcher, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t nervous at times.

“I have to kind of rein her in sometimes,” Burton said. “Let her know when not to throw.”

Both coaches know they might have to calm their aggressiveness on the base paths a bit with such quality behind the plate today.

Burton said his team will remain aggressive and with the same game plan as usual, but it wouldn’t make sense to forget that Babb is behind the plate. Likewise, Stahl knows that Stowers has a big arm as well.

Nobody wants to see their chance at a victory erased because they challenge one of the state’s top defensive catchers.

“You always have that in the back of your mind,” Burton said.

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