Bob Arens has his ear to the social scene at Northwest. It's not because he loves to gossip or that he's an aspiring tabloid reporter.
No, Arens is a catcher. And part of the most important job on the baseball field is knowing everything — everything — about your pitchers.
"You just have to know how they are," said Arens, a senior who has signed with Wichita State. "You have to know if you can go out (to the mound) and yell at them or if you have to go out and sweet talk them. You've got to know their relationship stuff. If their girlfriend just broke up with them, they're not going to throw very well that day."
Arens is one of a group of area catchers continuing the decade-long tradition of standout backstops. The current crop includes Arens, Maize's Tory Bell, Bishop Carroll's Tucker Chadd, South's Casey Lassley and Goddard's Levi Meyer. All are seniors except Chadd, a junior.
Catching stars of the recent past include Ryan Owen, Cameron Welch and Zach Goldberg (Heights), Tyler Weber and Derek Norris (Goddard), Cody Lassley (South), Brent Milleville (Maize)and Brian Preston (Augusta). All played Division I baseball and/or professionally.
"I don't think it's just a coincidence that there's a lot of great catching going on in this area," WSU pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Brent Kemnitz said. "I think it's a number of great reasons why."
Bell said he can't understand players who are laid-back and meek. A catcher since he was 13, those characteristics have never described him.
To play catcher, leadership is a must. It's something that can rarely be developed — the best catchers are born with it and gravitate to the position early in life.
"Kids will play other positions," Bell said. "Catching is a tough position because not many kids want to do it. But if you're up for the job, it's a good place to be."
Even if more players wanted to catch, the characteristics of most don't match what is needed to play behind home plate.
Casey Lassley, whose brother, Cody, is a senior catcher at WSU, found out as a freshman that he would be the starter and was forced to grow up in a hurry.
"I had to know my baseball players," Lassley said. "I had to know what they were going to do and what (the pitchers) were going to pitch."
Figuring out pitchers is probably the toughest part of the job but the most rewarding. Catchers must be the glue of the pitching staff by picking the brains of several people with different personalities.
"It takes time, really," said Chadd, whose father, Tim, caught at Carroll and whose uncle, David, is the scouting director for the Detroit Tigers. "We came in at 5 in the morning for three weeks before school to throw bullpens so I can get to know them and what pitches they throw and on what counts and things like that."
Arens, Bell, Chadd, Lassley and Meyer were all encouraged to catch by relatives or little league coaches. Their skills have been refined since then by former catchers who work with younger players.
Former Collegiate coach Mike Gehrer has run the Just Block It camp for catchers since 1986. He uses former WSU catchers such as Brandon Hall and Joe Muich to provide advanced teaching.
"Even at 13 or 14 years old, they're hearing about things that big league guys are doing," Gehrer said. "That refinement comes from having so many different people give them that type of instruction at a young age."
One of Gehrer's camps runs concurrent to the ceremony for the Johnny Bench Award, which goes to the top collegiate catcher and has been given by the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission since 2000. Five current major league players won the award.
"That puts a big importance on catching when that national award is right here in Wichita," Kemnitz said.
Gone are the days when the catching position was filled by a lumbering, big-bodied player whose main job was to stay out of the way.
Catchers are bigger, faster, stronger. The revolution of the position started at baseball's higher levels and flowed down to high schools.
"A lot of times you just stuck a guy back there to catch and you didn't realize how valuable that (position) was," Maize coach Rocky Helm said.
Catchers now aren't just catchers, either. Bell has played third base and outfield. Norris, now one of the top prospects in the Washington Nationals system, played some third base at Goddard.
Collegiate's Tyler Coughenour hit 10 home runs as a catcher last season before moving back to his natural position, shortstop, this year.
"If we get a guy that comes in as a multi-position player, that's always a luxury for us to have," Goddard coach Tom Campa said.
Catchers have even become better hitters — Arens, Bell, Chadd, Lassley and Meyer all had strong seasons at the plate in 2009.
"That's a bonus," Meyer said. "If I have a bad day at the plate, my dad always tells me, 'You did your job defensively and that's really all that matters.' "
Campa said he has young players at Goddard whom he expects to continue the tradition of good catchers. Helm said it's one of the first positions he looks to fill.
They know what they're looking for — leaders who can accept responsibility, because both coaches, and many others, let catchers call pitches.
It's a distinct group of characteristics that has become familiar to the area. They're what help catchers reach the upper levels of baseball and often stay there for a long time.
"I think (coaches) want them involved in every play," Kemnitz said. "A lot of them will put him behind the plate and understand that, 'Hey, this is my quarterback and the guy running my team.' "