Catcher Nick Juaire dropped to his knees, perfectly blocking a pitch in the dirt to keep the runners on first and second from moving up a base. The ensuing pitch Juaire called for produced an inning-ending double-play grounder.
In the top half of the next inning, the Lakeville North senior hit a curveball up the middle for a run-scoring single with two outs. It came after fouling off a 94 mph fastball on the previous pitch.
Juaire tops a list of an outstanding group of high school catchers in the state this spring. The Texas Christian recruit is one of six signal callers who have either signed a letter of intent or verbally committed to a Division I school.
“So many times when athletes are identified as having talent, and they commit to playing collegiately, the expectations for superior performance seem to follow,” Lakeville North coach Tony Market said. “Nick is one who has the greatest expectations of himself.”
Joining him at the Division I level next year are Chaska senior Riley Swenson, who is headed to the No. 16-ranked Gophers, and Prior Lake senior Ryan McDonald, who will attend South Dakota State. Two juniors are also Division I-bound in Holy Family’s Eric Rinzel (Missouri) and New London-Spicer’s Will Roguske (Illinois State), as is St. Louis Park freshman Sam Hunt (Vanderbilt).
Two other junior catchers are also highly regarded: Joey Danielson of Eden Prairie and Drey Dirksen of Willmar.
“There is a long history of good catchers from our state,” said Rob Fornasiere, Gophers assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator, who announced his retirement Sunday at the end of the season, his 33rd as a member of the coaching staff. “This is another in a long line of good catching candidates from the state.”
No easy task
Catching is the most demanding position in baseball. Signal callers have to cope with taking pitches and foul tips off all parts of their body along with collisions at home plate from opposing runners.
“It isn’t a position where kids put their hand up to volunteer,” Fornasiere said.
Prior Lake coach Greg Nesbitt has been fortunate enough to recently work with seven Division I catchers, the latest being McDonald. Nesbitt served as an assistant coach at Burnsville before taking over the Lakers’ program.
“Ryan is right up there with the best that I have ever had,” Nesbitt said. “His work ethic, attention to detail, and mind for the game is second to none.”
McDonald has a good arm, but it’s his quick feet that set him apart from others. He is 5-9, 190 pounds.
“Ryan is a true dirt bag —that is a compliment — with his blocking and receiving,” Nesbitt said. “His toughness is never questioned.”
Starting at a young age
McDonald knew he would become an everyday catcher at a young age. His father, Kevin, also was a catcher during his playing days.
“I wanted to be just like him,” McDonald said. Kevin is the Lakers’ freshman coach and works with the varsity team’s catchers.
McDonald started working behind the plate on a regular basis at the age of 10. He is quick to identify his strengths and weaknesses.
“I’m good at blocking and receiving, not letting runners take an extra base because of a ball getting away,” McDonald said. “I really have to work on the throwing aspect, being on target and accurate.”
He would also like nothing better to inherit an aspect Juaire excels at behind the plate.
“The way he receives the ball and positions his glove really helps his pitchers,” McDonald said. “He is able to steal calls from the umpires on pitches that are off the plate.”
Juaire started catching at an even younger age. He was consistently behind the plate at the age of 7. Three years later, he was honing his skills at the Texas Baseball Ranch in Montgomery.
“My dad was looking for something online and it had a good review, so we took a chance,” Juaire said. “You have to be on the showcase circuit now.”
Eight years later, Juaire continues to work with the camp’s staff. He has person-to-person contact up to four months each year.
“They are the only reason I committed to TCU,” Juaire said. “It’s because of them that I’m having success right now.”
Juaire might be small (5-7, 170 pounds), but that doesn’t hinder the Panthers’ leadoff hitter. He went 4-for-6 with eight RBI in a doubleheader sweep of Rosemount on April 30. He lined a double and grand slam home run in the nightcap.
“Nick is able to set the tone for our team right away as he seems to always have a good at bat,” Lakeville North coach Tony Market said. “Having a player like him in the leadoff spot allows us to try and put the pressure on other teams from the very beginning.”
The switch-hitter had a batting average of .583 (21-for-36) through the Panthers’ first 11 games. He has struck out only once. Hunt, like Juaire, is also a switch-hitter while all the others hit from the right side.
“I’ve become more consistent on driving the ball,” said Juaire, who has three doubles, two home runs and 14 RBI to go with an .806 slugging percentage. “I pride myself on not striking out.”
Juaire isn’t alone on having a big day this season. Swenson went 2-for-4, also clubbing a grand slam, and had seven RBI in a 12-6 victory over Richfield. The Hawks’ No. 3 hitter also had a two-run triple.
“I can be a good hitter when I let the ball get deep,” said Swenson, who is 6-3 and 190 pounds. “I just try and do what I can to help the team.”
Chaska coach Craig Baumann said Swenson is “following some great catchers for us.” His most recent graduate Luke Roskam is playing at Nebraska. “Riley is a big catcher, and growing into his frame,” Baumann said.
McDonald, like Juaire, is putting it all together at the plate in his final season. He belted a walkoff three-run home run to defeat Eden Prairie 10-8. It was his second homer of the day, and also his second three-hit game of the season.
“His short, compact swing and quick hands allow him to produce line drives all over the field,” Nesbitt said. “Some of the balls Ryan has hit are the hardest balls I have seen hit in my coaching career.”
The righthanded hitter is batting .548 (17-for-31) through the Lakers’ first 11 games of the season. Hitting second in the lineup, he has four home runs and 15 RBI with a 1.000 slugging percentage. He has also walked nine times without striking out.
“My sophomore year I hit for average, and last year my batting average went down but slugging percentage went up,” McDonald said. “I’m now combining it all, hitting for average and power.”
Rinzel, with a .514 average through Holy Family’s first 12 games, has five home runs, 16 RBI and a slugging percentage of 1.054.
Fornasiere says Twins minor league field coordinator Joe Lepel used to tell him, “All this state has are hitters and catchers.”
“It’s still true today,” Fornasiere said.
Now they are packaged together.