When Mason Ankeney first squatted behind the plate as a varsity catcher two years ago, the question was whether a sophomore had the toughness to handle a veteran staff.
Beyer had two aces in Kyle Barrett and Dom Rossi, one firing fastballs that flew past batters and the other tossing pitches that seemed to dance as they approached the plate.
It was Ankeney's job to not only catch those pitches, but to call each one and offer his advice throughout the game.
"The first game we (played) Buchanan and I had to catch Kyle," Ankeney said. "I was concerned about not screwing up, making a bad impression for a very good team."
He survived that first game without embarrassment and there was never another question regarding his toughness.
It explains why, two years later, Ankeney was catching just two days after receiving 26 stitches above his left eye.
No one would have considered Ankeney "soft" had he taken a day off after being hit in the head by a pitch. Coach Steve Clark said it would be a game-time call, but Ankeney never gave him the chance.
There he was, the catcher's gear strapped on and the tail of a makeshift bandage peeking out from under his mask, trotting out to start the game.
Not only was he flawless behind the plate, Ankeney went 2-for-3 with two doubles and two RBIs in a 5-4 victory for The Bee's top-ranked squad.
It was his work with pitcher Matt Jackson that pleased Ankeney the most, however.
"The bond between a pitcher and a catcher has to go farther than between the lines," said Ankeney, working with a novice staff this year. "They have to know each other well enough (to be) on the same page and have confidence in one another to make the right decisions. As a spectator, the clues that they are on the same page is that the game speeds up and there is a good tempo between pitches."
Ankeney has been establishing that tempo since he was a 12-year-old calling his games at Bel Passi Little League, the cradle of Modesto baseball.
"The pitches I call depend on the situation and different variables that must be considered," Ankeney said. "Memory is key. Not only is the last at-bat important, but also how you pitched the person last game and even last year."
Ankeney picked up some of his tricks working with experienced pitchers and passes them to young hurlers such as freshman Trey Ridenour.
"The best parts of my catching game are my strong arm, ability to handle each pitcher depending on the situation and ability to call the game," said Ankeney, who also has a 3.5 GPA and is considering Fresno-Pacific as a possible destination for next season.
The most noticeable flaw in his game had been a habit of relying on his arm to provide the power when throwing to second base, rather than using his body as momentum.
"He's better at going from a catching position to a throwing position this year," Clark said. "His footwork is better, so he's got a quicker release."
What impresses the pitchers is that Ankeney hasn't allowed a passed ball this year.
"He gives you confidence to throw your best pitch in the dirt of off the plate, even with a runner on third," said Jackson, 3-0 with a 3.08 ERA. "He is familiar with the hitters, so he knows the pitches to call."
That confidence has helped make a winner of 6-foot-3 senior Derek Wach, 2-0 with a save and a 2.03 ERA. He was 0-3 with a 6.36 ERA last year.
Wach throws the most junk of any Patriot starter, and his pitches can dive into the dirt or break head when he's on.
"I'm more willing to throw the junk up there with a catcher who I know can knock anything down," Wach said. "He knows what I can throw and I trust him to call the game."
While his performance behind the plate has improved, Ankeney has not been as efficient at the plate. He hit over .400 each of the last two years, with 68 RBIs and 13 homers, but he's at .323 with six RBIs and no long balls this spring.
Part of that is due to Beyer's schedule -- seven games vs. some of the state's top teams at the Coca-Cola Classic in Clovis. Ankeney struggled to a 3-for-20 start, but he's gone 7-for-13 in the last four games.
"We want to be challenged early in the season and you'll see some of the top pitchers in Clovis," he said. "That's going to make you a better hitter for the rest of the season."
Richard T. Estrada can be reached at (209) 578-2300 or email@example.com.