When Bryant Bowen crouched behind home plate for the first time as a Captain Shreve Gator, he inherited not only a set of shin guards and a mask but also a legacy.
From Chris Phillips to Clint Ewing to Andrew Murphy to Jarid Scarafiotti, Gators catchers have made it a habit of working their way into Division I college baseball.
“Three of our last four catchers have played Division I baseball, and it looks like Bryant will have that opportunity, too,” Shreve head coach Todd Sharp said.
Bowen, a sophomore, is far from the only talented catcher in the Caddo-Bossier area this season. Benton’s Andrew Cole is headed to Southeastern Louisiana while Calvary’s Weston Steelhammer will play football and baseball at the Air Force Academy next season.
Having such a high level of talent clustered at one position is a bit of a statistical oddity, one that one former catcher turned high school coach attributes to early baseball education.
“Baseball in this area, playing at a young age competitively, you learn a lot about the game,” said Benton coach J.D. Stephens, who caught at Haughton and was an assistant at Captain Shreve.
There also is the athleticism factor.
Steelhammer is the veteran of the group, having caught four seasons at Calvary. Bowen has started all but one game behind the plate during his two years at Shreve. Cole played in the outfield before moving to catcher this season.
“It starts with a guy who can throw runners out and then can block pitches,” Calvary coach Todd Walker said. “Once you’ve got that guy, then you work into being an offensive threat and being able to call a game. Weston in particular has such a unique perspective on this game, because he’s a football guy. He’s one of the kids who gets it. He understands the game.”
Walker said Steelhammer “calls the game along with me,” while Cole calls Benton’s pitches.
It is a responsibility both embrace, although it can, at times, threaten to fray friendships.
“The best part about (catching) is you get to see three great pitchers we’ve got and some good relief pitchers, too,” Cole said. “The worst part is I want to demand things, and they want to demand things, and we butt heads sometimes, but we get over it.”
Part of that entails not taking a bad at-bat behind the plate. Given their responsibilities, mastering that task is vital.
“That is tough, but coach Walker preaches on it day in and day out,” Steelhammer said. “You can’t take your bat with you to the field, and you can’t take your glove with you to the plate. I’m able to get that behind me and go from there.”
All three have proven capable of doing so.
Cole leads Benton in hitting at .417 while Bowen is second on the Gators at .363 and owns a 23-9 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
Bowen learned as a freshman how to handle the grind of a high school season. That work ethic allowed him to show his leadership skills and earn the trust of his new teammates.
“He impressed us all,” Shreve junior right-handed pitcher Madison Livingston said. “He’s got a good personality, too. He knows he’s good, but he’s humble. He works harder than anyone else on the team for sure.”
The trio of catching standouts share another common theme — experienced coaches.
Both Sharp and Stephens were catchers, with Sharp catching at Airline and Centenary. Walker spent more than a decade in the major leagues and has been a sounding board for Steelhammer.
Bowen also has a major league tie, having caught former Shreve standout and current Chicago Cubs pitcher Scott Baker’s offseason bullpen sessions at Gator Field.
“(Sharp) always has tips for something,” Bowen said. “He’s always on top. Every little critique he makes, it helps. (Catching Baker) I get an eye for a major league ball coming at me, and then his critiques as what he likes his catchers to do, I take that to mind and put it out there for my pitchers.”
While Steelhammer’s and Cole’s futures are clear, Bowen’s is to be determined. Several Southeastern Conference schools already have been in touch with Bowen, giving him myriad opportunities when he finishes his Gators career.
“Being able to catch in the SEC would be awesome,” Bowen said. “Coach (Todd) Butler at Arkansas said it takes a man’s man to play in the SEC, and I really like that perspective.”