Tyler Qualls: Jackson's sure-handed receiver

Sunday, April 25, 2010
Jackson catcher Tyler Qualls puts on his gear before taking the field for the second inning Thursday. (KRISTIN EBERTS)

Jackson seniors Tyler Qualls and Matt Crader like to catch things together.

The two boys are fishing buddies.

But when it comes to their favorite catch of the day, it just might be base runners.

Their favorite "hole" is around second base, where the pair utilizes baseball savvy, skills and friendship to nab unsuspecting runners that wander too far from safety.

"The back-pick," as Crader refers to the play.

Jackson catcher Tyler Qualls receives a pitch from Bobby Clark during the third inning Thursday at Whitey Herzog Stadium in Jackson. (KRISTIN EBERTS)

The play involves the shortstop, Crader, slipping in behind the runner and the strong-armed catcher, Qualls, gunning a throw to second after receiving the pitch.

"Sometimes he'll flash the glove, sometimes we'll just smile and nod our heads," Crader said of the cue.

"Me and Crader have been playing together since we've been little kids so I work well with him," Qualls said. "We can look at each other and know it's on, and I'll throw down and get 'em."

The pair demonstrated their ability to catch base runners against Poplar Bluff on Thursday when they extricated their team from a two-out, second-and-third situation during the fourth inning of a 12-2 victory. The Indians were leading just 4-2 when Qualls put a laser-like throw on the third-base side of second and Crader applied the tag to the Mules runner, whose desperation dive back to the bag proved futile. It was a red-faced moment for the Poplar Bluff player, who had some explaining to do when he returned to the dugout.

"More times than not we get them out," Crader said of the play.

Jackson's Tyler Qualls receives congratulations from teammate Bobby Clark, right, after Qualls scored a run during Thursday's game in Jackson.

It was the fifth such "catch" the pair reeled in this season.

"He loves throwing behind runners," Crader said.

Qualls also is adept at throwing in front of runners.

In the first inning, Qualls gunned down a would-be base stealer at second by yards. It was the first and last theft attempt by the Mules.

"Usually the first runner tries to run and he throws them out, and then they stop running," Crader said.

Jackson's Tyler Qualls makes contact during the fifth inning Thursday.

Qualls has been a fixture behind the Jackson plate since his freshman year, and his superior backstop ability was rewarded April 14 when he signed a Division I letter of intent to play baseball at Louisiana Tech of the Western Athletic Conference.

Conference opponents of Louisiana Tech include Hawaii, Fresno State, Nevada, New Mexico State, Sacramento State and San Jose State.

"My future goal is to play in the College World Series, and I believe they'll give me a chance to get there," Qualls said.

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior, whose father Bruce was a catcher at Southeast Missouri State in the early 1980s, has been on the radar screen of colleges since the end of his sophomore year, when he said his arm strength increased.

But the laid-back, soft-spoken catcher is not all about defense.

His bat is both timely and power packed. Qualls batted .367 his junior season, which ended through no fault of his own.

Qualls, who throws right-handed but bats left-handed, belted a solo home run in the top of the 10th inning against North County in a Class 4 District 1 semifinal to stake the defending district champions to a 4-3 lead.

"I actually had the take sign on that pitch. Thank God I hit it out," Qualls said with a sheepish smile as he recalled the moment.

However, the then-junior's heroic blast was trumped in the bottom of the inning when the Raiders scored two runs to overtake the Indians.

While the home run was not a winner, it was a harbinger of a big senior season as was his selection as a 2010 Under Armour Preseason All-American.

His senior season has been worthy of the honor thus far. Qualls has been the most difficult out in Jackson's lineup, batting better than .600 and owning one of the four home runs the Indians have belted out of their new major-league-dimension ballpark. He caught a no-hitter by teammate Bobby Clark earlier this season, contributing a home run in the process.

But for Qualls, having his hands around aluminum is not as satisfying as having his hand in leather.

"I kind of like being on defense better," he said. "I like throwing people out. I can't really help with what my teammates do at the plate, but behind the plate is where I like to be."

He likes to be fully engulfed in the action, which is the case behind the plate. He's been a catcher since he can remember.

"A stud catcher," said Crader, who recalls playing against Qualls in youth baseball before joining forces in recent years.

The pair not only has been teammates at Jackson High School but also has played together for the SEMO Cherokees the past three summers. The Cherokees, a select regional team, play approximately 60 to 70 games each summer in Pastime Tournaments at major college baseball fields around the Midwest.

It was during a Cherokees game last summer that Crader and Qualls stumbled on the ultimate "fishing hole." They caught five runners on the "back-pick" in a single game.

"It was kind of funny because their coach would say, 'Here it comes, here comes the throw down,' and they wouldn't get back and I'd pick them off," Qualls said. "And he'd get mad in the dugout, and I just kept doing it."

Mention of the game sparked laughter from Crader.

"They didn't learn their lesson," Crader said. "They kept getting off. A couple we just got lucky on."

Qualls' stringer of base runners was full that day, as he also threw out two base stealers in the game.

"That's probably what I look forward to the most every game," Qualls said. "I don't care about hitting, going 0 for 5 or 5 for 5, as long as I throw out a runner, which makes the coach mad. It's exciting for me."

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