Central baseball team uses signature defensive gems to reach Class 4 sectionals

Monday, May 23, 2011
Central's J.P. Huston makes a diving catch in right field during the third inning of a game against Kennett on Saturday, April 30, 2011, at Notre Dame High School in Cape Girardeau. Kennett won 2-1. (Kristin Eberts)

Trey Gardner, a lifelong shortstop on the baseball field, laughed as he recalled the growing pains of a less than graceful attempt to play the outfield last season with the Central Tigers.

"I took a fly ball off the head, so I was a little uncomfortable," said Gardner, a senior. "I wasn't used to playing outfield. I was used to playing short. I had to come in and I was like in a rush and just took my eye off the ball for a second and got hit."

On Wednesday, Gardner again found himself in the Tigers' outfield, a move necessitated by a chain reaction of position switches after a season-ending injury to center fielder Christian Cavaness.

The Tigers led 8-6 in the Class 4 District 1 title game, but Sikeston had runners at first and second with one out. A Sikeston batter lined a Ronnie Scott pitch to right field, and on the charge once again was Gardner.

But this wasn't the junior version of Gardner. This was the senior version. This was the Gardner who spent time in the outfield with the Cape Junior American Legion baseball team last summer. The one who had his father Dana hit fly balls to him three times a week last summer.

Central outfielder J.P. Huston makes a diving catch during a game earlier this season. (Kristin Eberts)

This Gardner was using his head, but in a more productive way.

"I caught two balls earlier that game, and there was a foul ball I could have got to but I didn't run hard enough, so I was thinking, 'The next catch I got to make,'" he said. "And the ball was hit to me, and I was like, 'I've got to go for it.' I read the ball well off the bat."

Gardner, who was playing deep to prevent an extra-base hit, left his feet as he dived toward the infield and snared the ball just above the grass.

Scott fanned the next hitter and the Tigers (16-9) had their first district title since 2007. The win gave Central a home sectional game against Hillsboro on Tuesday.

"That play in the seventh inning, I didn't know if Trey was going to get it, but he caught it," Scott said.

Central right fielder Trey Gardner makes a diving catch against Sikeston during the seventh inning of the Class 4 District 1 title game Wednesday in Farmington, Mo. The Tigers, who won 8-6, will face Hillsboro in the sectional round Tuesday at Central. (Fred Lynch)

Senior center fielder Austin Davis had faith in the Tigers' new right fielder.

"I knew he would catch it the whole time," Davis said.

The catch was what has become somewhat of a signature of the Central outfielders, who have a knack for airborne grabs.

"J.P. Huston seems to make about one a game," Central coach Steve Williams said. "He's not scared to lay out. He loves to do it and he's a very good defensive outfielder in left field."

"They all like diving," said Cavaness, who has been forced into a bench role of supporter and adviser. "That's one thing they like doing in practice. They like to see who can make the most diving catches."

Central's Trey Gardner singles and drives in a run against Chaffee during the third inning Wednesday, March 23, 2011 at Central. (Fred Lynch)

Huston, a senior, usually leads the team in grass stains.

He estimates he's had "four, five or six" diving catches this year but thinks he had more his junior year.

"I've always loved getting dirty on the baseball field," Huston said. "Anytime I have the chance to lay out, it feels good to come up with the big catch for the team."

"J.P. is probably the best at it," said Gardner, who said his diving catch was his first since being moved to the outfield. "Austin is pretty good at it, too."

Such catches also carry risk of turning a hit into extra bases, but Williams believes his fielders can be more aggressive if they execute the proper fundamentals, such as initial footwork and communication.

Central outfielder Austin Davis tracks down a fly ball during a game earlier this season. (Kristin Eberts)

"The thing we really stress to them is fly balls are outs," Williams said. "We feel like if we can get to it, we're going to catch it. And so we want to make sure we're fundamentally sound and not turn a ball that should be an out or a single into something more than that."

But Williams acknowledges that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword," Williams said. "You want guys to be aggressive and get it if they can, but by the same token there are times when the best play is to pull up and play it on a hop or to back up and play it in front of you, depending on the game situation. Our kids have done a very good job of adjusting with the count, adjusting with the score and just playing very good defense in the outfield."

It takes 21 outs to win a seven-inning high school game, but a highlight-reel catch seems to count for more than one out.

"That's the most fun to make and gets the crowd into it," said Cavaness, who had more than his share of highlights in center field. "It's a big confidence boost for the team whenever you come into the dugout to go hit. It's fun to see the hitter's face and their reaction whenever you can come up with a diving catch."

It also can be an impacting moment in a season, which Cavaness and the Tigers found out during the SEMO Conference tournament.

It was a diving attempt that cost the Tigers their slick-fielding center fielder and leadoff man.

Cavaness, a junior, broke both bones in his left wrist when he dived to make a catch, only to have the ball jarred loose upon impact.

"He's fast and knows how to judge the ball and makes all the catches," Gardner said about Cavaness. "He's probably one of the best outfielders around, so there were pretty big shoes to fill."

With his center fielder, who also was the team's leadoff hitter, in a cast until early July, Williams had to recast others.

Davis moved from right field to center field, while right fielder Huston shifted to left field. Gardner moved from shortstop to right field and sophomore Calvin Lovig and junior Thomas Crocetti have shared time at shortstop.

The shift was natural for Davis, who had grown up primarily as a center fielder.

"I'm a lot more comfortable in center field than I am in left," Davis said.

The moves have left the Tigers with a different look and feel, but the results have been much the same.

"We have a pretty solid outfield," Huston said. "We knew before the year we were going to be solid and then when Christian got hurt, we figured we might suffer a big loss. But then Trey filled in and he's doing just as good. It's a big help to the defense. We couldn't lose any depth in the outfield."

The Tigers have not overpowered the opposition with their bats, instead relying on fundamental play founded in defense, pitching and situational hitting. Their ability to adapt also has been fundamental to their success.

Versatility is something that Davis has displayed during his years as a Tiger. Davis played multiple roles for the Tigers in a 10-2 football season last fall, leading the team in interceptions as the starting safety while also returning punts and kickoffs and serving as a backup in the offensive backfield.

Davis, who started as a freshman and sophomore, has struggled at the plate this season but he's found numerous ways to help, just like football.

"When I'm struggling offensively, I try that much more harder defensively to do everything I can," said Davis, who has been batting ninth.

He had two hits in the win against Sikeston, including an RBI triple.

"I think I'm going to catch stride starting here in sectionals," Davis said. "It's all mental. It's all about confidence and I'm thinking I'm getting to where I need to be."

Gardner bats third in the lineup and Williams wanted to find a way to better utilize his speed and quickness with the move to right field.

"Coach Will didn't make him, he just said he'd like him to play outfield," Huston said. "And Trey definitely was going with the plan."

Williams said he thought the move could relieve defensive pressure on Gardner, who started the season at designated hitter, and allow him to focus on offense.

"Trey has really done a good job working at it and making himself as good as he can in a short period of time," Williams said. "He's played a very good defensive outfield so far."

The shortstop situation has been solid, too.

"Calvin, he's a sophomore but I knew he could do the job," Scott said. "He's good at fielding the ball. He's got a quick release. And sometimes Thomas plays shortstop, and he's a good shortstop and he plays third, too. He makes plays and has a pretty strong arm."

The loss of Cavaness, who likely was going to break the school single-season record for triples, also has resulted in reshuffling in the batting order. Huston went from the bottom half of the lineup to leadoff.

"I definitely try to work the count more and just try to get on base and make the pitcher throw all his pitches," Huston said. "I've kind of changed my approach at the plate."

The reshuffling also has resulted in sophomore Ramsey Scott being inserted into the lineup. He was a one-man wrecking crew in the Class 4 District 1 tournament. Scott belted his first varsity home run in a 13-3 win against Poplar Bluff, had the game-winning hit in a 10-9 win against Jackson and three doubles and five RBIs against Sikeston.

"I've been really impressed with the way our kids have responded to the injury," Williams said.

And the Tigers have a fourth outfielder in the dugout in Cavaness,

"Christian is still there every day and we all miss him," Davis said. "We took a big shot when he was gone."

Davis said Cavaness helps players keep their heads in the game, assisting with positioning in the field and advice.

"I like to help them out as much as I can, on position or just making sure you're coming in on a fly ball to throw somebody out," Cavaness said. "Just little tips that I picked up whenever I was playing for as long as I have. Just anything to help them become a better outfielder."

The one thing the Tigers haven't learned from Cavaness is the perils of diving.

"The fact that he did it on a diving play, you'd think maybe we'd get like scared, you know, and not have the confidence to dive any more," Huston said. "It definitely didn't change anything. We might be more aggressive, if anything."

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