Lisa Morrison, Herald & Review
Her freshman year, Teutopolis coach Rich Niebrugge didn’t know what was wrong with catcher Anni Borries. She had a cannon for an arm, but baserunners were stealing bags all the time. She was failing in her most basic responsibility as a catcher. Or was she?
“I was so excited to have her behind the plate because she’s such a solid catcher. But for the first part of the year, teams were stealing on us left and right,” Niebrugge said. “We finally figured out that she was getting the ball to second base quicker than our defense could get there. “I’m thinking, ‘Man, they’re stealing on Anni!’ Well, they weren’t really running on Anni, they were running on the rest of our defense.”
Borries, a senior and Illinois State commit, is one of the top catchers in the area, equipped with the arm strength, game smarts and leadership that all the best have. “Kind of the captain of the infield,” said Jon Kidd, first-year Maroa-Forsyth coach. Borries, like Effingham St. Anthony senior Hunter Niebrugge, has been her team’s starting catcher all four years in high school because she, like Niebrugge, has the total package.
“They both have a cannon for an arm, and I know they both work really hard,” Rich Niebrugge said. “It certainly adds a big element to the game when you have somebody behind the plate that can throw the ball like those two can throw the ball. It makes a big difference.” Taylorville coach Jim Novar is moving senior Kailey Talley, a three-year starter at center field, to catcher in search of that difference maker. Talley’s a college-bound outfielder (Illinois College) who’s as fast as they come, leading the Tornadoes in triples and stolen bases last season, but Novar knows he needs someone behind the plate first. “Without a doubt, I think you always want to build your defense from the middle out,” Novar said. “I hate to move her, but out of necessity … I think that’s where her value for us this year is needed the most.”
She fits at catcher, a position she has played at times for her summer team, because she has some of the same tools that make Borries and Niebrugge so great. Her starting experience qualifies her as a leader, regardless of position, and Novar isn’t worried about her arm strength either – she’s just throwing in a different direction now. “I definitely think you have to have a catcher, especially in the league we play with good teams like Mattoon and Mount Zion,” Novar said. “Mount Zion will run on you any possible chance they get, so you have to have somebody that can control that a little bit.”
Keeping baserunners under wraps is a big deal, especially as offensive as the game has become since the pitching circle was moved back three feet beginning with the 2009-2010 season. In the five seasons of state finals (semifinals, third- and first-place games) before the change, there was an average of 0.27 home runs and 3.98 runs per game. In the time since the change, those numbers have jumped to 1.21 home runs and 7.33 runs per game.
“You want them to really keep the ball in front of them, so you’re not having girls run around the bases on us, and have a strong enough arm that the girls are not moving,” Effingham St. Anthony coach Crystal Tipton said of catchers. “There’s a lot of teams you can just steal on, no matter what.”
The Bulldogs haven’t been one of those teams for three, going on four years because Hunter Niebrugge, a University of Illinois-Springfield commit, has such a strong arm and practices every situation with her middle infielders. “Just to know what’s going on and game situations,” Hunter Niebrugge said. “What to do with a person on first or with one out, just kind of knowing what’s going on. “If your whole team knows, then that makes a good catcher look even better because then they can use their arm to the best of their abilities, and you can kind of throw it wherever and they’ll still help you out.”
Tipton, in her eighth year coaching St. Anthony, knows Niebrugge takes a lot of pressure off of her teammates because of her ability to keep runners stationary. “It changes everything,” Tipton said. “It changes the outfield’s mindset, the infield’s mindset, it changes the pitcher’s mindset.” Hunter Niebrugge’s mentality is always of positivity because she knows she’s in a position to lead.
“I’m the only person on the field that can see everything that’s going on on the field. I have a bird’s eye view of it,” Hunter Niebrugge said. “I think being a leader is the most important thing and being able to bring the team together, to bring them up when we’re down or keep them up when we’re high. “Kind of directing the game.” To be an effective director, catchers have to be smart. They have to know the game like Niebrugge and Borries do and confidently call the shots.
“Softball is such a fast-paced game. Knowing where to go with the ball, you have to make those decisions in an instant,” Rich Niebrugge said. “As a coach, I can try to say what I want to say from the dugout, but the catcher is the best place on the field to do that. “You have to make decisions so quick. You’ve gotta know the game and be very decisive.” Borries is really good at it because she has saturated her life with the game, and it helps that her twin sister, Kadi, also plays. Kadi Borries is also committed to Illinois State.
“We are always looking at videos on YouTube or looking at something that was shared on Facebook about softball,” Anni Borries said. “Actually, my mom bought me a book about softball, about the mental aspects of it. Right now, me and my sister are working on reading that. “So we’re just doing as much stuff to better our game and better our knowledge of it.”
Teutopolis has a full rotation of pitchers – four last year – which means Anni Borries isn’t just catching her sister, Kadi, the Shoes’ best hurler, every day. So she deals with different styles of pitchers who operate differently from each other. “I talk with Anni about all of our pitchers. She has valuable insight,” Rich Niebrugge said. “Anni knows how to pitch also. She reports to me about how the ball’s moving, who’s getting more movement, who had better velocity.”
It’s also important to know how to interact with different pitchers who bring varying levels of experience and confidence to the pitching circle. Maroa-Forsyth senior Kaitlyn Aubry, the second-year varsity starting catcher, managed a group of inexperienced pitchers last year. Her stability behind the plate was one reason the Trojans won a regional title with freshmen Kate Beckemeyer and Denaed Santini getting more than 140 combined innings of work.
An important part in making it work is pitch selection, an art Borries and Niebrugge are invested in. It’s something Novar, for the first time, thinks he’ll allow his catcher to do this season – that’s how well he thinks of Talley. “The one thing I stress to a lot of new catchers … is communicating with your pitcher – what she likes to throw, what she can throw best, what she’s not throwing good, what you can do to help her out,” Hunter Niebrugge said. “Keep her positive because the way they always taught me was you’re here for the pitcher.”
Hunter Niebrugge is training freshman Liz Day to be her successor. Knowing the rare talent she has at catcher right now, Tipton is asking Niebrugge to, “throw all the information at her that you can and really, really teach her for us.” She takes such tasks in stride. She’s also working closely with Katie Kabbes, a freshman shortstop, who may be in position to replace junior Jenna Woltman, a Butler University commit at shortstop, when Woltman is pitching. With that tutelage, the Bulldogs ideally won’t be giving anything up, in terms of keeping baserunners in check, when the freshman subs in. That’s a leader.
“Hunter is just really one of the best,” Tipton said. “Her attitude is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. She is contagious – her smile, her attitude, her mannerisms, her jokes. She’s just a person people are drawn to.” Her personality is unlike what a lot of people have seen, it seems. She’s so loud – and she’ll admit it – that she has gotten side glances and little comments from batters in the box or overheard other teams complaining, “Oh my gosh, that catcher is just so loud. Why won’t she be quiet?” But she’s so good, why would she change? “I try to stay positive. I don’t like playing negatively,” Hunter Niebrugge said. “I just like to have fun, that’s the number one thing. It’s helped me this far, so why stop?”