Quite a catch

Catch­ing on: Naz­areth Academy’s Meg Cox won her team’s Coaches Award this sea­son. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF NAZ­ARETH ACADEMY SOFT­BALL

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.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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