Monday, October 5, 2015

Hometown catcher grows into leader

Blair DeBord remembers growing up with the Kansas State baseball team playing in his backyard. And he remembers well the struggles and adversity that the program faced leading up to its first NCAA Regional in 2009.

That just happened to be DeBord’s, a Manhattan native and MHS alum, senior season. And he chose to become a Wildcat rather than going the junior college route and trying to become a professional as soon as possible.

Four years later, it all seems to have worked out for the K-State junior. He’s recognized as a Johnny Bench award nominee, for the best catcher in college, and he’s part of the best season in modern program history.

K-State will play in its first Super Regional at Oregon State, starting this Saturday.

When the Wildcats won their first regional in program history on Sunday, DeBord admitted it was a pretty special moment for him.

“I think that it may have meant a little bit more to me because I’ve been here watching the struggles,” he said. “And I understand the struggles we’ve had in the past just being a player, not even as a fan. It means a lot to these guys too.”

DeBord also had an emotional effect on the regional wins this past weekend. In the first and second games, against Wichita State and Bryant, DeBord was involved in collisions at the plate in the first inning.

Both times the Wildcats were trailing, and both times it seemed to serve as a jumpstart for the K-State offense.

DeBord’s aggressiveness on the play against Bryant caused some heat on Saturday night, with ESPNU’s own TV broadcasters disagreeing with the move DeBord made, which knocked out the Bryant base runner, and left him with a concussion.

The K-State catcher said he meant nothing malicious on the play though, saying he was just looking to make a tag and protect himself as the player was moving towards him on a bang-bang play.

As DeBord said, you never know when the situation can be flipped, and it can be the base runner taking out the catcher.

“Last year at the Big 12 tournament, I got flipped in the air,” he said. “I’m in harms way, I’m going try to protect myself. If I have an easy swipe tag, I’m going to do that. I ended up hitting him high, I didn’t get a chance to apologize to him, but I wasn’t trying to hurt him.”

DeBord is hitting .317 for the Wildcats this season, with 10 doubles and 35 RBIs. But his focus this season has gone behind his offensive game.

DeBord has continued a tradition of calling games behind the plate this season. At the collegiate level, not all catchers call the pitches that will be thrown. Some teams have the coaches signal pitches from the dugout.

But early on in K-State coach Brad Hill’s tenure, the Wildcats began putting the responsibility of calling the pitches on the catcher’s shoulders. And DeBord, he said, does a good job at it.

“That was something that Blair, who is very prideful and very vocal — which is a good thing most of the time — he wanted that,” he said. “I’ve always believed in that and after being here and experiencing how the calling of pitches went here, and to have a guy that wanted that responsibility — it’s a lot of pressure — some guys want it and some don’t. Blair wants it.”

For his part, DeBord describes the art of calling a game as a chess match, with constant adjusting as the game changes. For example, DeBord said he had a game plan going into the Wildcats’ regional title game against Arkansas, but after the Razorbacks scored three runs in the first inning, he had to change it completely.

DeBord said in working with former coach Rob Vaughn, also a former K-State catcher, he started to learn how he could have an effect on the game in other ways. Priority number one for a catcher? Defense.

“I just try to separate (offense and defense),” he said. “I can go 0 for 4 or 0 for 5 with four or five strikeouts, and I can still have an effect on the game. I can always make an impact behind the plate. If you want to be a good catcher in college and pro ball, you have to understand the hitting is secondary, and it’s icing on the cake if you can hit.”

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