Listen to Baylor softball coach Kelli Smith and Heritage baseball coach Eric Beagles talk about the catchers on their teams this past spring and the words they're saying are similar.
Composure, instincts, leadership. Those are just a few of the immeasurables the Lady Raiders' Cassi Pickett and the Generals' Hunter White possess, their coaches say. Combine them with their measurables and it's easy to see why they are among the elite in an abundant school year for softball and baseball catchers in the Chattanooga and Northwest Georgia areas.
Pickett currently shares catching duties with Northwest Whitfield's Bayli Cruse on the Tennessee Fury '95 16-under team — one of 11 locally-based teams that qualified for Amateur Softball Association national tournaments.
Pickett is about to be a junior at Baylor, which she transferred to from Marion County. That would mean big adjustments had to be made, going from a small-town public school to a large private school in the city. But she knew she could find her haven on a ballfield.
Smith said when Pickett came in as a freshman, she let her help with the middle school team. It didn't take talking for long before the coach began to figure out she may have a prodigy in her program.
"I started letting her call the middle school pitches," Smith said. "I could just tell she really had a knack for it."
Things at school didn't always go smoothly for Pickett that first year at Baylor, but she worked through some obstacles and made it to her first spring with the Lady Red Raiders.
"She came out the first day and took charge," Smith said. "Here she was coming to a new team, a new school, having to learn my system, and she was in charge. I just loved it."
Assistant coach Tom Watson had been calling the pitches for the high school team, but Smith said after the coaches tested her with several situational questions, he agreed to allow Pickett to handle the task regularly.
And as is the case with all the current plentiful amount of catching prospects in the area, Pickett is an offensive force, as well. She batted .464 for the Division II-AA state champions with seven home runs, a team-high 20 doubles and 52 RBIs.
"I have a lot of confidence in anybody in our lineup that steps in the box. That not only goes for Cassi, but especially when she has two strikes," Smith said of Pickett, who struck out five times in 112 at-bats. "She just doesn't get rattled."
Beagles coached White, a Bryan College signee, for four years. He penciled him in on the lineup card at catcher from the start and let him go to work.
"As active a position as catcher is, to start there right away as an incoming freshman is a daunting task," Beagles said. "He caught every game while he was here except a game where he got sick the day of the game.
"He was more mature than a lot of people he came into the program with. He shouldered a lot of responsibility from day one."
Beagles said White's biggest improvement came between his sophomore and junior seasons, particularly offensively. White batted .440 last season with four home runs and 13 doubles for a Class AAA state-playoff team.
"He had a breakout junior year," Beagles said. "But even after that, after other teams start to get a book on you, he was still able to provide a lot offense as a senior, even though he became a target a little bit."
Beagles said he met the physical requirements — the ability to block pitches, the throwing arm — to play behind the plate, but his knack for doing the little things is what made him a big-time player.
"He definitely did a lot of work with our pitchers that would go unnoticed," Beagles said. "When pitchers needed to be talked to, he took trips to the mound on his own. He was good at calming everybody down when that's what was needed. He was the reassuring voice of somebody you work with every single day."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.