Behind Home Plate, Signs Of Much Talent Ed Conrey, Matt Heilman, Rob Reed And Doug Trombino Lead A Strong Crop Of Catchers.

Posted: March 25, 1996

Most coaches will tell you that they can never have enough good pitchers, but that the position they'd like filled first is catcher.

And what do the coaches want in a catcher?

A leader on the field, a solid defensive player, a smart handler of pitchers, a power hitter. If the catcher is his team's best player, the coach is very happy.

This year, there is an abundance of catchers for area high schools who fit most of those qualifications. And four of the best are Ed Conrey (Harry S Truman), Matt Heilman (Spring-Ford), Rob Reed (Plymouth-Whitemarsh) and Doug Trombino (Pennsbury).

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED MARCH 27, 1996, FOLLOWS: The Hatboro-Horsham baseball catcher was misidentified in a story Monday. Dennis Haggerty is the player.

As a group last season, when all of them were juniors, they combined for 11 home runs, drove in more than 70 runs, and caught every pitch of every game for their teams.

``Sometimes it's a drag getting up and down, but catching is fun,'' Reed said. ``I'm still learning a lot about it.''

``Last year, I came out every time I was on base,'' said Trombino, who was replaced by a courtesy runner on the base paths. ``I don't mind. It gives me time to rest my legs.''

Reed also got a break from baserunning last year, but not Conrey and Heilman. Conrey stole 10 bases in 10 attempts, and Heilman scored 20 runs.

``I told the coach I'd like to stay in because I consider myself a good baserunner,'' Conrey said.

``I never came out for a courtesy runner,'' said Heilman, a quarterback and linebacker for Spring-Ford's 10-0 football team last fall. ``I'm one of the fastest guys on the team. I think my speed is one of my biggest advantages as a catcher.''

Of the four, Conrey best fits the traditional catcher's profile as a power hitter. Last year, he hit seven home runs (10 in two years) and drove in 28 runs.

``In my 27 years of coaching baseball in this area, he's as good a hitter as I've ever seen,'' Truman coach Tony Schino said. ``I've never seen a high school catcher with his power.''

Heilman might have had the best overall offensive season of the four last year, hitting .466 with three homers, 26 RBIs and the 20 runs scored. But their coaches expect both Reed (.327) and Trombino (.305) to step up as seniors.

``As far as strength, size and speed, he's one of the best catchers we've ever had,'' Hank DeMito said of Reed, who was a starting tight end and linebacker on the Colonials' district Class AAAA football champions. ``He's one of the fastest runners on the team and has tremendous power.''

``He's hitting the ball harder this year,'' said Trombino's coach, Steve Nielsen. ``He has the ability to drive the ball, but we want him hitting to all fields.''

All four catchers say they've had to work harder on their defensive skills than on their offense.

``I have to work on my throw to second base,'' Trombino said. ``We worked on my speed a lot during the winter, and I got my time down.''

``I've had to work on blocking balls the most,'' Reed said.

What all four have in common is their ability to run the show on the field. They want to call the pitches, not take signals from the coaches.

``I want to be the guy to take charge of situations,'' Conrey said. ``I call my own game. I'm learning to make the right calls in the right situations. That's taken a while for me to learn.

``Last year, the coaches called pitches at the beginning of the year, but whenever Adam Arch pitched, I made the calls because we work well together. I think they'll let me call my own game more this year.''

``The catcher's the only player that sees the rest of the field in front of him,'' Reed pointed out. ``You have to be able to know what to do in game situations.''

Said Heilman: ``I haven't run into a coach who wants to call pitches, but I wouldn't be comfortable about that. I feel I'm not in control when I'm not calling the pitches. I'm the leader out there.''

Conrey (Duke University), Reed (St. Joseph's) and Heilman (Kutztown) have already made college decisions, and Trombino said he would decide between West Virginia and Pace University soon. All four play on teams that could be district playoff contenders this season, and while they are at the top of the catching ladder entering the season, they are not alone.

Some of the other team leaders behind the plate are Paul Greenblatt, George School; Pat Gorman, La Salle; Mike Holmes, Norristown; Josh Lamberg, Upper Dublin; Kent Malmros, Council Rock; Scott Mellors, Central Bucks East; and Dave O'Brien, Neshaminy.

And Hatboro-Horsham will start sophomore Paul Haggerty behind the plate.

``He's as fine a prospect as we've ever had,'' Hatters coach Dick Butts said.

Which describes many of the starting catchers for area teams this year.

BASEBALL GUIDE PLAYERS TO WATCH Listed in alphabetical order.

* Ed Conrey, Harry S Truman. With his college destination settled (he will attend Duke), the only thing left for Conrey to accomplish in high school is to help lead the Tigers to the top of the Suburban National's Patriot Division and into the district playoffs. The Inquirer's first-team all-area catcher last fall, he hit .386 and had 28 runs batted in and seven home runs. He also was 10 for 10 on stolen-base attempts.

* Matt Heilman, Spring-Ford. Heilman, who is headed to Kutztown to play both baseball and football, hit .466 last season, with three homers, 26 RBIs and 20 runs scored. An all-Pioneer Athletic Conference quarterback and linebacker last fall, he's one of the few catchers who is not replaced by a courtesy runner when he gets on base. He's one of the best at blocking pitches in the dirt.

* Vic Hillaert, Neshaminy. Hillaert, who has made an oral commitment to James Madison, will be a vital member of Neshaminy's attempt to repeat as the Suburban National's Patriot champions. He had a 3-1 record on the mound last season, and was the starting leftfielder.

* Vinnie Keaser, Plymouth-Whitemarsh. Look for a breakthrough season from Keaser, a pitcher and outfielder who was one of the stars of the Colonials' district Class AAAA football champions last fall. A regular as a freshman for P-W's state Class AAA baseball champions of 1994, the junior was the fastest of 14 hurlers tested at the Carpenter Cup skills day last June at Veterans Stadium.

* Kevin Post, Central Bucks West. A workhorse, the senior righthander pitches almost every other game. He was outstanding at the Carpenter Cup skills day, throwing the fastest series of breaking balls of the 14 pitchers tested. He may come close to pitching 80 innings this season.

* Rob Reed, Plymouth-Whitemarsh. Reed was the Colonials' MVP last season, when he was behind the plate for every pitch in 19 games and batted .327. He is one of the fastest runners on the baseball team, and was a leader at tight end and linebacker for P-W's district football champions last fall. Reed has made an oral commitment to St. Joseph's.

* Dan Smyth, Bristol. One of Bristol's best all-around athletes, he's the school's all-time leading rusher in football, but turned down an athletic grant from New Hampshire to concentrate on baseball. Smyth played only 12 games last season because he suffered from the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, but he still hit .514 and had five homers and 15 stolen bases. He was the Bicentennial League MVP as a sophomore, and has close to 100 RBIs in three varsity seasons.

* Doug Trombino, Pennsbury. At 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, Trombino is the biggest of an outstanding group of high school catchers in the area. He is another of the catch-every-pitch iron men behind the plate, and hit .305 last season, with eight doubles. He has narrowed his college decision to West Virginia and Pace.

TEAMS TO WATCH Listed in order of the season's opening rankings.

1. Pennsbury (17-6 last year). The Falcons reached the district's Class AAA semifinals last season, losing a classic 1-0 pitchers' duel to Coatesville. Coach Steve Nielsen has four starters returning from that game's lineup: pitcher Adam Arch, who hurled a six-hitter; catcher Doug Trombino; third baseman Jim Chapman; and centerfielder Jason Cooper.

2. Plymouth-Whitemarsh (17-2). Coach Hank DeMito's Colonials won the Class AAA state championship in 1994, and still have two regulars from that team - senior catcher Rob Reed and junior pitcher-outfielder Vinnie Keaser. P-W's only losses last year were to Hatboro-Horsham.

3. Neshaminy (18-4). Only two starters return for coach Bob Loven -leftfielder Vic Hillaert and shortstop Adam Lewis. Hillaert also will be the No. 1 pitcher, and is the only hurler with much varsity experience. Dave O'Brien, a transfer from Conwell-Egan, should be the starting catcher.

4. Harry S Truman (9-8). The Tigers' lineup is loaded with power, starting with Duke-bound catcher Ed Conrey and first baseman Shawn Fetzer, the latter of whom homered over Veterans Stadium's left-field fence in a Carpenter Cup game last June. Fetzer, Shawn Slavinski and Keith Roach lead coach Tony Schino's pitching staff.

5. Holy Ghost Prep (16-6). Ted Grabowski's Firebirds finished second in the Bicentennial League last season, and were knocked out of the district's Class AAA playoffs by the eventual champion, Phoenixville, which gained a 1-0 victory on an unearned run. The 1-2 pitching rotation of Ed Soley and Robin Walsh should be as good as any in the league.

6. Council Rock (15-7). The Indians have a solid four-man pitching rotation - Doug Evert, Sean Hylind, Ken Parsons and Greg Powell - and a veteran catcher in Kent Malmros. Coach Pete Lucente expects to have a solid defense behind them.

7. Norristown (11-8). Ray Chillano has seven starters back from last season, as many as any coach in the Suburban National. Bob Smull and A.J. Niedosik are returning pitchers, and second baseman Mike Harbaugh and shortstop Harry Singleton are also letter-winners.

8. Hatboro-Horsham (17-6). The Hatters' two biggest wins last season were over Plymouth-Whitemarsh, the second coming in the second round of the district Class AAA playoffs. Coach Dick Butts has only one pitcher with varsity experience - Ken Remaily - but returns all-league second baseman Dave Greninger.

9. Central Bucks East (14-6). The Patriots, defending Colonial champions in the Suburban National, are opening with four games in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Coach Neil Zanetti expects to have a solid defense to support an all-new pitching staff in Richie Barrett, Ryan Mulford and Peter Yodis.

10. Conwell-Egan (13-11). Coach Rich Paperio expects big things from his five-man pitching staff, headed by Matt Potalivo and Doug Fleck. Tim Slater, an all-Catholic League second baseman as a sophomore, is moving to center field.

A LOOK AT THE BASEBALL LEAGUES * Bicentennial. Devon Prep unseated Holy Ghost Prep as league champion last year, and the Tide return league MVP Eric Kittner. The Firebirds never finish worse than second, but coach Ted Grabowski will have an inexperienced team behind pitching aces Ed Soley and Robin Walsh. Kiki Rosado's health has improved, and he's back coaching a veteran Bristol team. If Dan Smyth stays healthy, the Warriors likely will make it a three-team race. Morrisville has a new coach in John Hubiak and could be a surprise challenger, with six regulars returning.

* Catholic League North. La Salle missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years last season, so expect the Explorers to rebound. Conwell-Egan coach Rich Paperio is confident his team will again contend for a playoff berth - the Eagles reached the playoffs last year - but he's depending on three pitchers who missed last season. Bishop McDevitt reached the playoffs for the first time last season, and should battle again with Archbishop Wood for one of the four division berths.

* Friends Schools. The Academy of the New Church made an auspicious league debut by winning the playoff championship last season, and the Lions return four starters. The George School has the veteran hitters and pitchers to get back into the playoffs after missing them last season.

* Suburban One American, Freedom. Methacton is the defending champion in the more wide-open Freedom Division, with Upper Dublin and Upper Merion prospective challengers.

* Suburban One American, Liberty. The Liberty Division should have a familiar 1-2 battle, between Plymouth-Whitemarsh and Hatboro-Horsham. P-W's only two losses last season were to the Hatters, so expect fireworks when the two teams meet at Hatboro on Thursday. The Colonials, the state Class AAA champions in 1994, have an edge in experience. Cheltenham went with a sophomore-dominated lineup last year, and could surprise the top two.

* Suburban One National, Colonial. The Colonial race has developed into another two-team contest the last few seasons, and again looks like a Norristown-Central Buck East battle. The Eagles open the season with the huge edge of having seven starters returning from last year's second-place team, and East, the defending champion, must replace its three-man starting pitching rotation. William Tennent and Pennridge also could challenge for a playoff berth.

* Suburban One National, Patriot. The Patriot annually has a three-way battle among Council Rock, Neshaminy and Pennsbury, and all three usually end their seasons in the district Class AAA playoffs. Last year, Neshaminy won the division title, but Pennsbury went the farthest in the playoffs. This year brings a major challenge from Harry S Truman. The Tigers have one of the most powerful lineups in the division in several years; have every pitcher, the starting infield and the starting catcher returning; and could finally break up the three-team domination. Pennsbury has the most regulars returning among the other teams in the division.

* Others. Germantown Academy won its first five Inter-Ac League games last season before falling back. The Patriots have more starters returning than any other team in the league, headed by sophomore pitcher Brian Burke, who was 5-0 last season. . . . Spring-Ford is a threat to Phoenixville, the defending district Class AAA champion, in the Pioneer Athletic Conference. The Rams have six starters back.

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