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North Hardin junior Graham Mathews always considered himself an infielder. When he started in the program, he was a middle infielder before mainly playing first and third last season.
North Hardin coach Ace Adcock had players who could play the infield. What he didn’t have was a catcher. The coaching staff didn’t want to use sophomore Javier Echevarria behind the plate because they planned on using him on the mound.
So Adcock approached Mathews about making the move to catcher. Mathews wasn’t too keen on the idea initially.
“At first, I felt like I was a middle infielder,” Mathews said. “That’s where I thought I’d be.”
But Adcock kept talking to Mathews about switching positions and even had him catch during fall workouts. During one practice, Adcock called out his pop times, which are timed from the pop of the catcher’s glove to the moment it strikes the glove of the middle infielder at second base.
Adcock called out each timed throw loud enough for Mathews to hear. Each throw was between 1.9 to 2.0 seconds, which is good for a high school catcher and Adcock knew it. The challenge for Adcock became persuading Mathews catcher was the place for him.
“I told him if his times were right in that range that’s what college coaches look for,” Adcock said. “If he wanted to play college baseball, he’d have a shot. He didn’t like it at first and I don’t think he wanted to, but Graham finally bought in.”
Everyone is resistant to change and Mathews was no different. But after giving it more thought and working at the position during the winter, Mathews has become a solid catcher in a short time.
“It was hard at first,” Mathews said. “It was hard to do that (catch) every day. It’s tough. But I’ve come to love the position. I love catching now.”
How valuable has Mathews been to the Trojans? Adcock is convinced North Hardin doesn’t break its 5th Region Tournament drought without Mathews’ sacrifice.
“We’ve had a good year, but we don’t get to the district championship and the region tournament if Graham is not catching,” Adcock said. “I know that. He’s the one guy that can handle Javy behind the plate and he’s really gotten better.
“He’s improved more during one year than anyone I’ve ever been around,” he added. “He’s raised his average more than 100 points and he’s been the anchor for our team at catcher even though he’s never caught before. It’s amazing.”
Catcher is one of the most difficult positions on the field. It’s mentally demanding, because a catcher must stay sharp, making calls for the infielders and visiting the mound to counsel pitchers through hard times. It’s also physically demanding, getting hit with foul balls and balls in the dirt.
“The hardest part has been blocking balls,” Mathews said. “My blocking skills have gotten a lot better. I’m pretty good at it now, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Mathews admits it’s been a challenge switching positions, but he’s always seen benefits from the move. Seeing the game from a different angle is one of the reasons for his success with the bat.
Mathews is hitting a team-best .398 with seven doubles, which is tied for second on the team. He has driven in 17 runs and scored nine times, although that number is deceptive since Adcock usually uses a courtesy runner for him.
“Being behind the plate, I’m seeing the ball better when I’m hitting now,” Mathews said. “That has helped me a lot. I’m seeing the ball out of the pitcher’s hand better. I think that’s because I’m used to seeing the game that way catching.”
Last season, Mathews batted .268 with one double. Adcock said Mathews spent plenty of time in the weight room and he has also matured physically. Mathews has grown 6 inches since his freshman season and he’s added 10 pounds since last season.
“He’s always had good hand-eye coordination,” Adcock said. “He’s grown about 4 inches in the last year. His body has filled out and he’s really coming into his own.”
The next step for Mathews is becoming a take-charge vocal leader, according to Adcock. Mathews is quiet by nature, so it has taken time to become comfortable in that role.
“You have to be vocal at catcher,” Adcock said. “He has to embrace it. He’s buying into it more and he’s developing being that vocal leader.”
Mathews has been a starter since his eighth-grade season. After three consecutive losses in the district semifinals, the Trojans finally got over the hump this season. They beat Elizabethtown, 5-1 to secure a spot in the region tournament, which will be held at North Hardin, for the first time since 2006.
“I was hoping we’d get there this year,” Mathews said. “We’re pumped up now that we achieved it. We’ve been waiting for this and now we’ve done it. We’re ready to get after it next week. I think playing at home is big. We play a lot better here. We’re a lot more comfortable.”
Just like Mathews is more comfortable behind the plate now.
Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.