Western Tech duo uses more than signs

The Baltimore Sun

The bond between Katie Blackston and Julianne Roper is deep and long, or at least as deep and long as they can have, given their youth.

They have not only worn the same team colors, but also have been battery mates, from their days in the Arbutus recreation program to today, with the Western Tech softball team.

If the Wolverines are lucky, the link between Roper, one of the area's best pitchers, and Blackston, a burgeoning junior catcher, will be strong enough to carry the school to its first state title. Their participation in the Class 1A North playoffs begins Monday against the winner of today's Carver-Harford Tech matchup.

At any rate, their alliance, or at least the one on the playing field, will end when the season ends, as Roper (12-3 with a 0.66 ERA) graduates this year.

"She's been my catcher since intramural ball in Arbutus," Roper said. " ... She's like [mock crying], 'It's going to be my last game that I ever catch you.' She's a really good catcher and I feel really comfortable pitching to her. I'm used to her."

This season has been pretty good for Western Tech. It narrowly missed a chance to repeat as Baltimore County champions, losing in the division race to Catonsville.

The Wolverines lost, 3-1, to the Comets two weeks ago, and while they beat Catonsville in the rematch last week, the first game counted in the division standings.

The April loss to Catonsville is particularly grating because they played out of character, committing costly errors.

For instance, in the last of the first, the leadoff hitter got to second on a single and botched pickoff throw, but was stranded on two fly balls and a successful appeal play, when the runner left second too early.

In the second, the Wolverines ran themselves out of the inning, when a runner who had reached first on a walk went to third on a single to right, but was tagged out when she overran the bag.

"The big thing was, we had so much pressure because we've had so much publicity this year," said Roper, who will attend Villa Julie. "My dad and all the parents were like, 'You have to beat Catonsville.' It put so much pressure on us. And they [Catonsville] don't even have [All-Metro pitcher] Amanda Fefel anymore."

Roper also was uncharacteristically out of sorts, allowing six hits and four walks, as well as three runs - all unearned. But she did pitch out of a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the third.

For her career, she is 56-17 with a 1.29 ERA.

Western Tech coach Bryan Thanner, who will be leaving to become assistant principal at Franklin Middle School after seven years as coach, said Roper is a smart pitcher who follows scouting reports.

"If the opposing team is scattering hits, it doesn't hurt," Thanner said. "She's not putting them on base with walks. We can give up a couple of hits and we're fine. She's not a super-overpowering pitcher with speed, but her control is excellent."

Said Blackston: "She doesn't let other players get in her head. If she walks a person or they get a hit, she starts over with a new batter. She doesn't frustrate herself like other pitchers will."

In Blackston, Roper has a solid catcher who not only can keep her grounded and loose, but also can keep base runners honest. Blackston, who has committed only two errors this season, has become the fulcrum of the offense as well, hitting .542 - second best on the team.

Blackston's three homers lead Western Tech, and her 13 RBIs are tied for first, as she has added more power to her game.

"I've always been a pretty good hitter because I have so much power in my legs," Blackston said. "I've just started to open up that power because before I just used my arms, but now I'm getting my legs into it."

The Wolverines, the No. 2 seed in the North region, think they have the formula to get to the state semifinals, where they advanced two years ago, most of which is based on the chemistry between their pitcher and catcher.


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