Gladstone's Ben Hill makes transition from outfield to catcher
Working from the stretch with a runner at first base, Gladstone right-hander Wesley Haverland threw a breaking ball that started in the strike zone and ended up in the dirt.
Behind the plate, Ben Hill went to one knee and turned his catcher's mitt over as he leaned to his right and watched the ball skip once before hitting his glove.
Hill didn't catch the ball cleanly, but he kept it in front of him and close enough that the runner on first stayed put.
Not a routine play, but Hill made this one look easy -- an encouraging sign for the former outfielder who this summer took over the full-time catching duties for the reigning Class 4A state champion Gladiators.
"We're working on it," Hill said. "I'm getting there. I'm learning stuff still, but I'm picking it up as I go. It's not too bad. So far, there hasn't been too many passed balls."
After Gladstone wrapped up last month's high school championship run with a 3-2 win over La Grande, there were some holes to fill in the lineup. The Gladiators graduated five senior starters, including three-year starting catcher Otis Lundgren.
To fill the vacancy behind the plate, the Gladiators turned to Hill, a senior-to-be and a three-sport athlete who plays linebacker and wide receiver on the football team and is a starting wing on the basketball team.
Hill had played catcher in a few Oregon Independent Baseball Association games last summer, but it wasn't until Lundgren sustained a concussion in a Tri-Valley Conference game against Molalla this spring and was forced to miss five games that Hill made his mark behind the plate.
"We knew Ben had the ability to play back there," Gladiators coach Casey Webster said. "When Otis had the concussion, we tried Dawson Wick, and then he got banged up, and then we just kind of threw Ben in there and said, 'Well, we've got to go in this direction.'
"He caught a nice game and we thought, "Well, all right, he's the one.' He was excited about doing it, too, so that helps."
How vital is it to have the right player behind the plate?
"It's huge," Webster said. "I mean, it's probably the most important position on the field. For Ben to want to do it and have a great attitude about it has been great. I'm just kind of excited to see what he can do."
Hill didn't start playing baseball until he was in the eighth grade at Kraxberger Middle School where he bounced around a number position, playing mostly right field and first base, and a couple of games at catcher.
He has done almost all of the catching for Gladstone's OIBA team this summer, although he didn't catch during a recent weekend tournament that started the day after he had all four of his wisdom teeth pulled.
His jaw was too sore and swollen to wear a catcher's mask, but he still got into a couple of games in center field.
Hill moved back behind the plate as the Gladiators closed out the OIBA regular season with consecutive wins over La Salle Prep, Lake Oswego, and David Douglas.
"He has had a few miscues here and there, but for the most part he has done a great job," Webster said. "And he's got a really good arm, too. That's nice."
Hill, who appeared in 16 of Gladstone's first 19 summer games, had a .273 batting average (12 for 44) with three doubles and five RBIs, hitting in the nine spot. He also had five walks, nine strikeouts, and has seven stolen bases in nine attempts.
In addition to Lundgren, the Gladiators also graduated Damian Alvarado, Derek Lee, Ben McCoy, and Tyler Meyers, leaving four other holes in the lineup.
But Gladstone returns a solid nucleus led by second baseman Austin Conner, shortstop Matthew Kuhn, and center fielder Matthew Lehrbach -- three players who earned All-State honorable mention last spring. The Gladiators also picked up Mateo Burgos, a transfer from Estacada and a sophomore-to-be who is capable of playing multiple positions and is expected to fill one of the starting spots in the pitching rotation.
"We have a lot of returning seniors and we have one of the best middle infields around with Austin and Mathew there," Hill said. "We probably need to develop some more pitchers, but I think our hitting is solid and our fielding is solid, and that's really all you need."
Will Gladstone have enough to make a possible run at not only back-to-back Tri-Valley Conference titles, but also back-to-back state championships?
"I think so," Hill said. "I'd like to make another run. That's what we're working toward."