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Summer audition: Merced High looks for new catcher

As crucial as lefty Mike Nelson was to Merced High's success this spring, coach Lou Souza's priority this summer is finding his team a catcher.

The Bears had one of the region's best defensive players in Phillip Parga, who gunned down two-thirds of those runners who tried to steal a base.

While not much of a hitter, Parga's strength played into Souza's program -- which stresses defense and pitching, and winning tight games.

But he's graduated, leaving the Bears with a gaping hole.

That's led to this summer's experiment, with Souza shifting Chad May from shortstop to catcher to see whether he can handle the role next year.

"Chad caught when he was a freshman, but went to short the last two seasons," Souza said. "He's got a strong arm, which is important. The summer gives us a chance to see what Chad does back there."

That's one of the luxuries of summer ball, giving coaches an opportunity to test players at new positions without the risk of sacrificing any wins.

"Everyone likes to win, but summer ball is about developing your depth chart and finding out what the new kids are capable," said Souza, noting Merced has 58 kids in its summer program. "We wrap up our summer this week and we'll have played 45 games."

The summer season, which began in late May, begins to wind down with this week's 22nd Ron Vermeulen Tournament, which began Thursday and runs through Sunday at Beyer, Downey and Oakdale.

Two high-profile programs playing this week are Merced and Downey. They were Central California and Modesto Metro champs this year, respectively, but each lost marquee players to graduation.

There's no replacement for Nelson, the CCC MVP after going 7-2 with a 1.03 ERA, but Souza has seen enough from May to think that Merced just might have its new catcher.

"I'm not looking to see who hits the ball and who is making the catches," Souza said. "I want to see who is running out the ground ball, who is in the right spot to make a play. I don't want to wait until the school year to find those out."

Souza has been watching to see how May reacts to runners, as well as his ability to settle down pitchers and is willingness to block balls in the dirt. Parga handled a staff that had a 2.13 ERA, even though Merced's schedule was as demanding as any in the Stanislaus District, and he allowed one passed ball.

May brings more offense to the role -- he batted .257 with eight RBIs; Parga had three RBIs -- and was fast enough to get three triples. While he is familiar with Jared Reyna (5-4, 1.48), this season's No. 2 starter, May is catching the other kids -- including Tyler Serna, Drew Romo and Justin Alva -- for the first time.

"Nelson was huge for us. If he's pitching, we were going to win," said Souza, whose club was 10-2 in games that Nelson started. "This summer is giving us the chance to see what the others can do."

Downey has a similar challenge this summer, as it tries to find a replacement for dual-threat star Kyle Robinson. He was already the MMC's best center fielder, but this spring he became its top pitcher, too.

It might be easier to find his fill-in on the mound than out in center, with the way junior Nick Ippolito has been throwing since the start of summer.

"Nick's not a big guy, but he has the best mechanics of anyone on our staff," said pitching coach Kevin Moore, who oversaw a staff with a 1.50 ERA and a 21-game streak of not allowing more than three runs to a foe. "We saw good things from Nick in the regular season, and this is an opportunity to test him again."

If Ippolito keeps developing, he'll join Bobby Schauer in the rotation. A starting second baseman his spring as a sophomore, Ippolito's regular-season work was deceiving.

"We're always trying to develop pitching, so if we play Tuesday and Thursday, we'll have an intra-squad game Friday to get our kids innings," said Moore, noting Ippolito (2-0, 0.79 ERA) threw just 17 innings this spring. "We want them on the mound and throwing to live hitters. I can't stress how important it is to get these kids throwing to someone swinging a bat."

While Downey sees little of Schauer, he's primarily with his high-level travel team in the Bay Area, the group of Ippolito, Devon Gradford, Gabe Garcia and Bryce Nakai have been regulars this summer.

Like Schauer, the last three are preparing for their third varsity year, while Gradford played varsity as a freshman.

"I think we've got another run in us," said Moore, whose club lost to Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 South runner-up Turlock in the playoffs.

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