One Last Season

Halfway through practice, John Matthew Rogers jogs from the pitching mound to first base. Coach Jones works with the catchers receiving pitches. Coach Strube is thinking about the team they play this Friday. What is the best way to counter the other team’s pitcher? It’s finally baseball season again.

Mr. Dustin Strube is the head coach for our baseball team. “I started playing baseball when I was five and I never stopped,” said Mr. Strube. “In high school, I played baseball for Sylvan Hills. I wasn’t really thinking about coaching baseball. Back then I was mostly focused on playing. I majored in Communications at ULAR, and I had plans to go into sales as a career. When I did get into sales, I spent my free time volunteering as a baseball coach for both Mills High School and Central High School.  That’s when I decided to make coaching a career.”

Mr. Strube first came here in 2004. “The first season I coached here as a volunteer and as an assistant to Coach David Estes,” he said. “I later got a job teaching Communications and coaching. 2008 was my first year as head coach with Coach Wayne Knight as my assistant coach.”

The selection process for the baseball team is very competitive. “This year we had 80 people trying out for the team,” said Mr. Strube. “It’s a very difficult process. I tell people all the time that it’s the second toughest day of my job, the day we have to cut that many people. It’s second only to that last game the seniors play in the state tournament before they’re done playing for us. Realistically we can keep no more than 50 people, which is how many we kept this year. Overall we want to make the kids better players and better people, and if we can do both of those things, it’s a good year.”

John Matthew Rogers is a senior who has been on our baseball team since half-way through his freshman year. “I was probably seven years old when I started playing baseball,” said Rogers. “I skipped tee-ball and went straight to pitching machine. When I was at North Little Rock (NLR) my freshmen year, baseball tryouts were right before Christmas break. I made the varsity team for NLR and right after that I transferred here, so I was pretty mad. Luckily, I had been going to the Catholic High baseball camp since I was like 10. Coach Strube knew who I was, so when he heard about me transferring, he told me I could just start coming to practice.”

Rogers was technically ineligible to play his first year because he transferred to a private school. “Mr. Strassle asked for a waiver for me to play varsity because I was a freshman. Even though I transferred to a private school, I hadn’t played a high school sport yet, so I wasn’t ineligible. I was on varsity and that was really exciting because I didn’t think I would be able to play at all, but I was actually able to bat. We were really good that year with the graduating class of 2016. We made it to the semifinals in the state tournament, but we lost in the eleventh inning to Conway. It was the most fun but also the most devastating baseball game I’ve ever been a part of,” said Rogers.

“I did try out my sophomore year,” said Rogers. “It’s pretty competitive and there’s a lot of guys who try out and trying to make it. I played for varsity as a freshman and so did some other people in my class, so we were able to make the team all the years after that as well.”

The team has a daily practice that lasts from 3:30 p.m. until around 6:00 p.m.  Mr. Strube said, “We set out what we are going to work on that day, then we stick to that plan and go from there. Once we get into the season, there’s mostly basic hitting and fielding that we do every day. We might also work on something we didn’t do well in the previous game that we need to work out before the next game. Every coach has his own job and responsibilities in practices. Coach Owen coaches outfielders and helps with pitchers, Coach Birch is our head pitching coach, and I do the infielders.”

Mr. Bryan Jones coaches catchers and hitters for our team. “Baseball coaching is different from coaching other sports because the coaches have less defined roles,” said Mr. Jone. “Baseball is so much of a team sport that everyone has to know what everyone else is doing, so we work with the other position coaches a lot. At practice for the catchers, we focus on receiving the pitch and the presentation of the pitch. We want to make it as easy on the umpires as possible so we make sure to use our glove to control the ball and keep it where we want it. For batting the mental aspect is very important. Knowing what you are physically able to do is very important. We work on going to plate with a plan. How you bat and how speedy you are is going to determine your plan for where you want the ball to go and how far you want it to go.”

The pitching coach for our team is Mr. Brent Birch. “Coach Birch is a volunteer and he’s there every single day,” said Rogers. “I split time with pitching and first base. Right now our pitchers are on a pitch count, so everyone is getting reps in preparing for conference [competition] and not playing a whole lot of innings. The pitchers in practices work really hard and definitely do the most workout type stuff. They’ll run miles, do explosive workouts, are always throwing, and they’re moving all practice because Coach Birch expects so much of us. He will call all of the pitches. A lot of the teams will try to steal signs for pitches. He has a huge number chart that the catcher wears and just a random three numbers will be a certain pitch. He’ll tell the catcher the pitch and the catcher relays that to us on the mound.”

“We talk to almost every coach during practice,” Rogers said. “Even if they aren’t our position coach, what we do affects what they do. I would say we interact with every coach about all the time. I’m with Coach Strube and Coach Birch for first base and pitcher. Coach Owen also does base running and Coach Jones does hitting, so since I am a baserunner and hitter, I am with them too. Every coach plays a big role in practice,” said Rogers.

The baseball team’s game plan changes with every team they face. “Some programs are notorious for doing certain things,” Rogers said. “Bryant, for example, likes to move really fast on the mound, in the field, and everything, so we try to slow the game down a lot. We’ll stay out of the box as long as we can, give a lot of signs, and that type of thing. Some teams are known for being hated, so we calm ourselves down and say we’re not going to get frustrated with calls or anything like that. The overall strategy for baseball doesn’t change, but how you approach each team does.”

“A lot of what we do to prepare for a game depends on what pitcher we will be facing,” said Mr. Strube. “If it’s a pitcher who throws in the low 90s [miles per hour] we will work on facing pitchers with higher velocities. If we know we’re going to face a guy who throws slower and a lot more curveballs, that will affect how we will prepare. When we put in pitchers, we have pitcher matchups. Every one of our pitchers will do something different. You have a leftie to go against left-handed hitters, we might put in a sidearmer, a guy with a better curveball, or something like that. ”

Rogers said, “We play games on Tuesdays and Fridays so that gives us a weird amount of time to prepare. A lot of in-season stuff is hitting and fielding, basics, and staying on top of things. Preseason is all about attention to detail, working in specific situations, pick plays, and cuts. There’s a lot more classroom time before the season than during the season. It may seem boring but it’s essential to the game. During the fall when the weather is nice, we scrimmage a lot. We do a three-game series where we split up into teams and play each other. We scrimmage as much as we can in the spring, but a lot of times conditions don’t allow it. Preseason for the spring can be rough because it’s so cold and rainy, so we’re in the annex a lot. We’re super blessed to have the annex at all, but we do get less time on the field when the weather doesn’t work out.”

The baseball team this year is as deep as it’s ever been. “We had only four seniors last year,” Mr. Strube said. “Last year we had a lot of the juniors step up and that will pay off for us this year with their experience. We are also very deep pitching-wise and very strong defensively. We will have 10-12 pitchers pitching varsity this year, that’s definitely deeper than we’ve ever been. This year’s defense has guys at every position who played last year and who are good at what they do. When hitting is clicking, we’re very good.

“This year the baseball team has 17 seniors,” Rogers said. “The junior class is really good and we have good sophomores. The chemistry is definitely there, right now it’s early and it’s cold but this should be the best year for baseball at Catholic since my freshman year. The bar was set with that 2016 graduating class because they were really good.”

This year will be the last season of baseball Rogers will play. “I was gonna go on visits to get offers,” Rogers said. “I decided not to and basically told the coaches that this isn’t what I want, thank you for recruiting me, but I don’t want to waste your time. I’m wanting to go to school and get my education. They were really kind and understanding and weren’t mad about it or anything.”

The preseason rankings list our team, Cabot, and Bryant as the top teams in the State. “7A is definitely the hardest conference,” Rogers said. “We don’t play any cupcakes, and when conference starts, it’s go-time and every game matters. Especially this year we want to be the team that wins a state championship. We’ve been so close so many times, and we saw how close those seniors were our freshmen year. The other seniors and I talk about being the team that does something. We have a super tight bond, a lot of seniors that have started and that have experience.”

“For me personally I want to be a good teammate,” Rogers said. “I know since we’re so deep, I’m not necessarily gonna play every game, which is totally fine with me. I love cheering on the players on the field as much as I love playing, so I just want to do whatever I can to contribute to the team.”

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