Photo by Bill Roseberry
Alton catcher Aaron Bonnell blocks the plate and tags out an O’Fallon runner Tuesday on the road. Bonnell has been a jack-of-all-trades for the Redbirds, contributing defensively, offensively and with great leadership for a talented pitching staff.
Good catching is key to any successful baseball program.
At Alton High School, a solid lineage behind the plate has coincided with a string of successful seasons for the Redbirds. Junior catcher Aaron Bonnell is the latest in that lineage and has impressed the brass with his efforts in 2014.
That brass includes head coach Todd Haug, a Roxana grad and former catcher who caught on the 1998 Edwardsville Post 199 American Legion baseball team that won the Legion World Series. It also includes assistant Steve Haug, an East Alton-Wood River grad who was drafted out of high school with the 40th pick in the second round by the Chicago Cubs in 1971 as a catcher. They understand the importance of strong skills behind the dish.
“From the beginning our catchers are hand-picked,” Todd Haug said. “It’s not necessarily what you might think as far as qualifications in terms of who we pick. We’re looking for the leader of the team, we’re looking for intangibles that aren’t necessarily physical. These guys are handling some outstanding pitching, especially Aaron; he’s been as good as anybody we’ve seen all year behind the plate.”
Beginning with Trevor Matifes when Haug took over the program in 2009, the Redbirds have gone to Brent Gibbs, Nick Paulda and now Bonnell. Gibbs is on the roster at Indiana University, while Paulda is at Lindenwood-St. Charles and Matifes played at the University of St. Mary in Kansas.
Bonnell credits Paulda with helping him the most during his sophomore campaign.
“He still helps me out to this day,” Bonnell said. “He basically taught me everything I know about catching. Last year I got a chance to be up on varsity DHing to get a first-hand view of him and so he could teach me how to catch. Everything I do is from what he’s told me. He’s just been a big part of my game.”
Bonnell sees the influence of Steve and Todd Haug, too.
“It’s a really big privilege to not only have one, but two great catchers as part of the coaching staff,” Bonnell said. “They’re watching me every move and Steve and Todd are always giving me pointers. I know when they were younger they were amazing catchers; I’ve heard stories about them, and I know they can teach me how to play the game right.”
Bonnell’s job has been a formidable one this season with a pitching staff that has arms surpassing 90 MPH. It’s led by senior southpaw Bryan Hudson, No. 100 on Baseball America’s top prospects list. He’s already signed with Mizzou and highly sought after for the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft, and Hudson credits Bonnell for helping his progression.
“I think it’s a testament to (Bonnell) that arguably the best pitcher in the state of Illinois and one of the best pitchers in the country will only throw to him, loves him,” Haug said. “They are completely on the same page and I think Bryan, if you ask him about Aaron, he gives him a lot of credit in terms of his own success.”
Bonnell admitted it was a challenge early on learning to catch high-velocity pitching, but he feels like he’s figured it out.
“I definitely had some problems with it at the beginning of the season with the velocity we have on our team, especially Bryan and Nick (Cauley), who are throwing over 90. My hand was definitely hurting during the early games of the season,” Bonnell said. “But I feel I’ve definitely grown as a catcher, because I’ve never really caught velocity like that in my life. Bryan’s really helped me out and I’ve got the hang of it.”
And while behind the plate is where Bonnell shines, he’s not too shabby at the plate, either. Through Tuesday he was second on the team in batting average at .373, accompanying a homer, a triple, nine doubles and 22 RBIs. He’s caught practically every inning for the Birds this season too, so he’s holding up under the taxing physical conditions of his job.
“I’ve definitely been feeling it on my body and my bat has been kind of dragging behind lately,” Bonnell said. “I feel I could be hitting better, but that comes along with catching. You’re back there to be defensive for your team. You just have to deal with it as a catcher. You’ve got to take all the hits and keep going.”
Keep going is what the Redbirds hope they can do when they enter the Class 4A Edwardsville Regional at 4:30 p.m. May 28 when they battle Quincy. The No. 2-seeded Birds hope for their third matchup with the Tigers of Edwardsville at 11 a.m. May 30 in the regional finals.
EHS ousted Alton from the playoffs a year ago in the regional finale, 1-0. There’s no doubt Bonnell and the rest of the Birds will be ready. Haug knows his catcher will be.
“He’s an offensive threat, he’s been a master behind the plate, back there blocking balls and getting dirty and his throwing has definitely improved,” Haug said. “He does a phenomenal job.”
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