In his earliest years of youth baseball, Nic Mertes had been a middle infielder.
At about age 10, he said, his dad and the coach he was working with, Gary Anderson, suggested a trial behind the plate with the catcher’s mask and chest protector.
“It was something new, something I hadn’t done before,” Mertes recalled, “but I started to like it a lot. I had to learn a lot, but it’s something I picked up quickly. I had developed quick hands from playing the infield.”
Mertes’ coaches – Ben Baier at Blue Springs South High School and Jim Moran for Post 499 Fike in American Legion – are glad he embraced that move to catcher.
Already a two-year starter at South, the senior-to-be was a linchpin in the Jaguars’ recent run to a Class 5 state third-place finish, hitting .358 and handling a top-flight pitching staff that included future college hurlers Reece Eddins (Nebraska) and Austin Simms (Drury).
For Moran’s Fike team, Mertes finished the regular season with a .420 batting average, .516 on-base percentage (both second on the team), 22 runs batted in and a team-high .560 slugging percentage. Just as importantly, as one of just four returning players this year on Fike’s senior team, Mertes has been a stabilizing force for a crop of new pitchers.
His production and intangibles are big reasons Fike challenged Blue Springs Legion rival Rod’s Sports Athletics for the division crown and now takes a 31-9 record into this week’s Zone 2 Tournament in Sedalia and an 8 p.m. Thursday game against the Lee’s Summit Post 189 Pirates.
“Nic, to me, is the epitome of a team player and leader,” Moran said. “He doesn’t boast; he doesn’t yell and scream. He does his job, works hard and even when he makes an out, he comes back with a smile on his face because he knows he did the best he could.”
Baier said he remembers seeing Mertes’ potential as a freshman to be “a great receiver” – the first trait he looks for in a catcher.
“The offense is just something that whatever we get with (the defense) is extra, but he’s becoming a pretty strong hitter,” Baier said. “He did a nice job, as a young kid, being able to handle that role – his maturity level and being able to get into that position and command respect of the guys.
“Nic is not afraid to work at things he needs to work on. There has to be confidence from those kids that if they throw it in dirt, he’s going to block it.”
Alex Smith, Mertes’ most common battery mate in a Fike uniform, said Mertes’ ability – not only in stopping pitches but calling them, as well as threatening to gun down baserunners – inspires that confidence in him and other Fike pitchers.
“I trust him enough to throw any pitch in any count and he’s going to put his body on the line to stop the ball,” Smith said. “He’s probably caught me 50 times over three years, and I can always trust him. I have a plan as a pitcher, and most of the time he has the same idea.”
Mertes, who often plays second base when he’s not catching, said he considers his footwork to be a big strength and has faith in his pitch-calling (he puts neon stickers on his fingers so pitchers can easily pick out signals while he shields them from opponents), though he said it helps when a pitcher is on the same page as the catcher and is hitting his spots.
“When you go from veterans to those a little younger, you can teach them as well as they teach,” he said. “You feed off each other’s knowledge, and every pitcher’s different.”
Moran has said this year’s Fike team exceeded his expectations more than any he’s ever had, and Mertes credited that in part to all players embracing a team approach, including the willingness to bunt from any part of the order.
“We’re definitely a team this year, and we all like each other,” Mertes said.
In Moran’s mind, it helps to have a player like Mertes from whom they can get their cues.
“Players respect him and like him,” the longtime manager said. “You don’t have to like a player to respect him, but they do both. I’m hoping some of the younger players watch him and recognize what it takes to be a leader.”