Gabe Togia walked into his house after baseball practice and sat down to rest his sore legs. He’d lift his arms and look at all the bruises.
And he’d smile.
“I think that’s what I like about catching and being a catcher,” said Togia, a senior at Federal Way High School. “I take pride in that.”
The life of a catcher doesn’t seem so superb. They lug the biggest bags, squat in dirt for half the game, are targets for barreling baserunners or (like Togia has experienced) are prone to get their hand sliced by a stray cleat.
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But an elite catcher — that’s an extraordinary asset.
And there have been few years in the South Sound with catchers as good as these.
Asked to rate their positional priorities, Federal Way coach Arlo Evasick, Kentwood coach Mark Zender and Sumner coach Casey Adcox each said the catcher is their most important position on the field other than pitcher — just ahead of shortstop, second base and center fielder.
They each have the luxury of a dominant backstop — with Gonzaga University signee Togia at Federal Way, San Diego signee Shane McGuire at Kentwood and Sumner with Jake Gehri, a junior with scholarship offers from Washington State and Yale so far.
Not that they’re alone. Puyallup (Ryan Teague), South Kitsap (Alex Garcia), Wilson (Brock Gagliardi, a transfer from Bellarmine Prep), Tahoma (Conner Hargesheimer), Central Kitsap (Duncan Guerrero) and Fife (Kevin Nakamura) all return first-team, all-league catchers, too.
“You want to be strong up the middle, but catcher is, by far, the most important position because they can see the entire field, they are calling pitchers and calling pickoffs — our catcher is giving signs every pitch,” Zender said. “And when you have a catcher who can shut down a running game — you are forcing a team to have to get three hits or get extra-base hits.”
Or as Adcox calls it — the three phases of baseball.
“They hit, they control the pitches and they control the run game,” Adcox said. “When you have a good catcher, like we do with Jake, you automatically have a leg up in all three of those.
“A lot of us coaches have guys who can control one of those parts — someone who blocks well, who is good behind the dish or is an offensive weapon. Jake can do all three of those.”
As can McGuire and Togia.
MCGUIRE — BRED TO CATCH
Cash McGuire and Reese McGuire were catchers, too. Reese was drafted 14th overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Kentwood in 2013 and is currently in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
But Shane was an infielder and a pitcher until his little league team needed a catcher.
“I never thought I was going to catch,” Shane said. “I thought I could be more involved and do more in the field if I wasn’t a catcher. But as I got older, there were fewer positions open and I had to grind to be on the field somehow — and catcher was it.”
Cash was a catcher before converting to pitcher and second base and went on to play at Seattle U. Reese was originally a pitcher before converting to catcher. So it’s not as if they were all bred to be backstops.
“My dad was breeding us to be everything,” Shane laughed.
Zender sees Shane — a three-year starter and reigning 4A SPSL Northeast MVP who hit .447 (42 for 94) during Kentwood’s run to the 4A title game last year — as a potential draft pick much like Reese.
“Shane is maybe a little better offensively and they both ran exceptionally well,” Zender said. “Reese was better defensively in terms of raw skill. But comparing them is apples and oranges, even though they are brothers. Shane is a natural leader and we had to cultivate Reese’s leadership skills.
“But from my perspective, you are pretty blessed as a coach when you have that kind of talent that both of them have — whether they are from the same family or not. All of the McGuire kids are fantastic.”
And as for not being as involved as a catcher? Shane is the most involved player on Kentwood’s field. Zender allows Shane — as with any of his catchers — to call the game, position outfielders and frame pitchers how he sees fit.
“There’s a lot of people in baseball that coach and treat it the way football does where the coach is engineering everything,” Zender said. “That makes sense in football because you have eyes above the field. But I want to give the kids the information and the tools to play the game.
“My philosophy is to turn them loose and I think you end up with better baseball players doing that. And it makes it easy having someone like Shane doing all that.”
Adcox says Gehri could go catch a Pac-12 game tomorrow.
“There’s parts of his game that would be elite in the Pac-12 right now,” Adcox said. “His arm is second to none; his transfer — you aren’t going to find anyone who is better at that. He might be able to receive better, but he blocks as well as anybody you are going to find.”
Gehri’s Little League coaches would be shocked to see him now.
He’s motivated by his experiences. Following as a catcher in the footsteps of his stepbrother, former Sumner player Michael Greenwood, he said he had coaches and parents telling him from a young age that his arm wasn’t strong enough to be a catcher and he wasn’t quick enough on his feet. He didn’t make his Little League all-star team.
“I had a lot of people doubt me,” Gehri said. “My work ethic goes toward proving those people wrong.”
He’s also only the second full-time International Baccalaureate student Adcox said he’s had in his 10 years coaching at Sumner. Gehri has a 4.0 GPA, too, Adcox said, and will frequently miss the first 90 minutes of a Monday practice because of his theory of knowledge class. He’s heard from most of the schools in the Ivy League.
He also threw out one Federal Way baserunner in Sumner’s season opener on a curveball and despite his pitcher’s high leg kick (allowing the runner to get a good jump).
“No one really questions Jake anymore,” Adcox said.
Gabe Togia’s father, Bingham, was an infielder when he played high school baseball, but saw an opportunity for his son as a catcher. Togia’s sister, Hanna, is a catcher on Federal Way’s softball team.
“My dad told me that if I wanted to get playing time, I would probably have to catch because no other kid would want to do that,” Togia said. “And I fell in love. He just threw me back there and I liked it.”
But Gabe occasionally also plays third base or pitches. He could play outfield, too, if Federal Way needed, Evasick said. He was the quarterback on Federal Way’s football team and his athleticism translates onto the baseball field.
“You can tell he’s spent a lot of time working on not only physically being a catcher, but the mental side and how to pitch hitters,” Evasick said. “It’s nice not having to hold the catcher’s hand — he knows what he’s doing well enough for us to trust him. He’s not calling pitches just to call pitches.”
Togia hit .426 (23 for 59) last year with a team-high seven doubles last season.
“He works really hard,” Evasick said. “To me, it’s one of the most important things a kid can have or people in general — he has a really high desire to succeed and he’s very competitive. He’s kind of quiet, but it’s definitely a big part of who he is that he wants to win and is ultracompetitive.”
That’s much like McGuire and Gehri.
“Being a catcher is fun — it’s a scrappy mentality,” McGuire said. “When someone out of baseball asks what position you play and you say catcher, they always have that, ‘That’s rough man.’
“And I say, ‘No, I love it.’ It’s an awesome feeling being back there and being in charge.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677