Groomed for greatness, Antioch's Gregory catches on
There was a bit of scrambling at work the first time Joe Gregory caught a varsity baseball game four years ago.
It was the season opener and Antioch's starting pitcher came up sick at the last minute, forcing head coach Paul Petty to change his lineup on the fly. Petty asked starting catcher Chris Terzic, who was also a pitcher, to take the mound.
That left a hole behind the plate, and Petty decided to take a chance and bring up Gregory, a freshman. Petty had a feeling, though, that there was a good chance he wouldn't be disappointed.
"When Joe was a freshman, you barely knew it," Petty said. "It was like he had picked up many of the finer points already. You knew he was going to be a really good catcher."
Let's just say it takes one to know one.
Petty was also a catcher in high school. At Antioch, in fact.
He and Gregory have spent the last four years developing a special relationship of mutual respect and admiration. Along the way, Petty has helped Gregory surge right past him and others who have played behind the plate at Antioch.
When Gregory puts the finishing touches on his four-year varsity career in the coming weeks, he will do so as arguably the best catcher in school history.
"Coach Petty has always had an expectation for me, he's always pushed me and challenged me," said the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Gregory, a .339 career hitter who will be playing catcher next year for Heartland Community College in Bloomington. "I think that's really helped me improve my game."
Gregory has had plenty of opportunities for improvement. After catching the season opener that day as a freshman, the spot became his for the rest of his career.
"It was a good move for everyone," Petty said of his season-opening switcheroo four years ago. "Chris Terzic went on to pitch in college so he was probably better suited for pitching anyway, and once we brought in Joe at catcher, I just knew we'd never look back."
But Petty did look forward quite a bit this season…to Gregory's return.
For the first time in his career, Gregory missed a string of starts behind the plate. He played in the Sequoits' first two games back in March and then told Petty of an intense pain in his left hip.
Gregory had injured his hip when he played football as a freshman and he says it never fully healed. Soreness and stiffness followed him throughout his entire career, but Gregory plowed through and kept playing.
"I didn't think it was a big deal. I thought (the pain) was just something I had to deal with and I didn't want to stop playing," Gregory said. "But this time, it was pretty bad. I still wanted to keep playing, but on the advice of my doctors and coaches, I decided to rest.
"It was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do because when you're used to playing all the time, you miss it so much when you can't play. You just want to be out there."
Gregory, whose hip muscles had pulled away slightly from the bone, missed 10 games over the first four weeks of the season. He called pitches from the dugout and tried to help his understudy, sophomore Adam Harvey, as much as possible.
"Adam did a nice job for us, but when you have an experienced player like Joe, it's different when he's not in there," Petty said. "We knew we'd be losing Joe at the end of this season, but we had to get used to that (reality) a lot sooner than we wanted to, and that was tough."
Order has been restored to the Sequoits' lineup for the stretch run. Gregory recently returned to his rightful spot, with a fresh appreciation for the game he loves, as well as a fresh leg to stand on.
"I feel better than I have in the last four years," Gregory said. "The time off I had was the first time I haven't played baseball since I was 4 years old. My body really needed that healing moment and now I'm able to do things that I haven't been able to do in a long time. I'm definitely more agile and flexible."
Other than that, Gregory is the same old Gregory, which, of course, is a good thing.
"Joe throws the ball hard and he's got a great baseball mind. He always has," Petty said. "Coming in as a freshman, Joe had a great baseball mind. I think that has really helped him with his ability to call pitches. He's really good at it.
"We've taught him to control the game. When I was catching, I always thought of myself as an extension of the coach and that's what we get from Joe. He's so positive with his teammates and he's always out there working hard, setting a good example."
Gregory is still adding to his game, too. When Petty shows him a new technique, or even one from the old days, Gregory drinks in the information eagerly.
"It helps that (Petty) caught, because I know he knows things that other coaches might not know. He's been there and done that," Gregory said. "There's a trust factor there for me. Having been together for four years, we're usually on the same page anyway. Sometimes it feels like we can read each other's minds."
Gregory's parents, Gary and Tammy, did a good job of reading his mind when he was a baby. And that set the stage for a lifelong love of baseball.
"Here's a funny story," Gregory said. "I guess I used to cry all the time when I was a baby and one day my dad was watching TV and flipping through the channels and I stopped crying when baseball came on. From then on, the TV was on baseball a lot. By the time I was 2, I had a bat and ball.
"I love baseball so much. Sometimes, I think I was just born for the game."
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