As a catcher, Megan Cox knows she’ll take many thankless lumps during any game or practice.
Hey, it beats being bored in the outfield.
Like most brave souls who man the catching backstop, Cox, a senior-to-be for Nazareth Academy’s hugely successful softball program, ended up behind the plate because nobody volunteered to catch when she was a youngster.
She took to the position immediately, despite the bumps, bruises, bat thumps and deflected foul tips that serve as an often painful occupational hazard. One perk of being a catcher, according to Cox, is that you’re always directly in the middle of the action.
“I started out in the outfield, but when you’re little, nobody hits it out there,” she said. “I was bored out there. Then I tried the infield, but I was kind of bored there, too. At the time, nobody really wanted to catch, so I decided to give it a try. I’ve loved it ever since.”
Even with all of the punishment that it puts her body through?
“You definitely take a beating, and you always have bruises,” she said with a laugh. “It’s your job to make the pitcher look good, and also to protect the umpire, because if you don’t, then you won’t get the calls if they’re the ones who keep getting hit. To catch, you’ve got to be fearless … and be ready to be really sore after a long game.”
For Cox, the strategic challenges catching presents far outweigh taking a stray foul ball off the shoulder or foot. From her crouch, she gets to be the liaison between the mound and the dugout, relaying pitching signs and ensuring the team’s defensive alignment is where it needs to be.
She also enjoys catching pitchers with different styles, as she did this past season. For example, the recently graduated Emily Shellenberger was armed with a deadly fastball, while incoming senior Taylor Lichtenhahn is a finesse pitcher who relies on movement and her offspeed pitches. Every pitch is different, meaning Cox has to be constantly adapting out on the field.
“You have to have communication skills, especially with your pitcher and the coaches,” she said. “It takes a lot of work, but it’s something we’re always focusing on in practice so that we’re ready for game situations. The catcher doesn’t get the same amount of credit as a pitcher, but what I love is that while a catcher might not win you a game, they can definitely lose it. You have to have the mindset where you’re ready for everything, especially playing at the level it takes to play for Nazareth.”
The Panda softball program, led by head coach Bob Keating and assistants Ray Keough and Brian Kalesse, always seems to be one of the top ranked in the city each year. This past season, Nazareth topped all past teams, going 23-3 and embarking on the deepest postseason run in school history, advancing all the way to the state semifinals, where they lost to eventual champion Valley View, from the Scranton area.
Of course, Cox was right in the middle of it all. After serving as a backup her freshman season, she’s been the starter the last two years, handling up to a half dozen pitchers in that time. Shellenberger was one of the most successful pitchers of the bunch, as she graduated with her fellow seniors having won 81 out of a possible 89 games the past four seasons.
It means that Cox must always be on her toes, and playing alongside such talented players keeps her sharp. And while she may not garner the headlines that some of her teammates have gotten, Cox’s tireless work ethic hasn’t gone unnoticed. She was awarded the Nazareth Coaches Award this past season.
“She’s in a position with no glory,” Kalesse said. “When you play on a good softball team, the pitcher or the player with the most hits tends to get the ink. She handled three different pitchers this season, all with different styles. Her job isn’t as simple as just catching a ball thrown down the middle. If Meg couldn’t handle all that her job entails, then Nazareth simply doesn’t go that far in states. And even if she was sick, she still stayed in school just so she wouldn’t let the team down. She sees the pitches better than anyone else, and more importantly, knows her pitchers better than anyone else.”
Winning the award is not something Cox takes lightly.
“I can say I wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “It was a great honor given all the talented players we have. I think any one of them deserved that award, but it’s nice to know my coaches saw how tremendously hard I’ve worked to get to where I am.”
Though the 2014 season is still months away, Cox already can’t wait to get started. She’s looking forward to being a senior leader, and hopes that the remaining Nazareth roster can win the district title again, which would ensure the Pandas another shot at a state title.
This time around, they want to win the whole thing.
“Everybody expects us to win, including ourselves,” Cox said. “If we don’t, it will be a disappointment. I think if we all work on getting better, that we can get back and win.”
Despite all the pressures of senior year, Cox is hoping to soak it all up, because she knows it will come and go in the blink of an eye. She’s more than just a softball player at the school, too — last year she played on Nazareth’s inaugural volleyball team; she’s also a yearbook editor, and participates in community service, the International Club and the Chemistry Club.
Once she graduates, Cox would like to find a college where she can study forensic science, mainly because she “likes the mystery of it.”
“I just hope it doesn’t go by too fast, even though I know it probably will,” she said. “Nazareth has had such a huge part of making me who I am. It really prepares you for whatever comes next. You meet friends who become your sisters, so it’s kind of sad that you only get four years together.
“This year, we didn’t want the season to end. I hope it’s like that for senior year. I’m expecting it to be, and I wonder how I’ll adjust to it, but at the end of the day I just want everyone here to know that I love them all so much.” ••