BOONVILLE — Growing up on the baseball diamond, Tyler Howard did a lot of pitching.
But his focus shifted toward being a catcher full-time when he arrived at Starmount High as a freshman in 2005-06.
Howard eventually earned the starting catcher’s job and collected all-conference recognition last season for his work behind the dish and at the plate.
“He’s a superb catcher, one of the best catchers in the league,” Starmount coach Mike McCann said. “I don’t feel afraid to say that.”
But McCann wondered if colleges would shy away from Howard because of his size. He’s tall at 6-foot-4 but doesn’t have the braun of a typical backstop at the next level.
“Colleges like their catchers to be sort of stocky,” McCann said. “But he’s long and lanky. He can get in a tight box, a tight fit. But they have a certain mold that they want their catchers to be.”
To that end, McCann talked with Howard last season about a return to the mound.
Howard obliged and started working on his pitching mechanics again. Things got sped up on him, though, when another starting pitcher on the Rams staff quit late in the season.
McCann gave Howard the ball in both the conference tournament and state playoffs, and while things were a little shaky at first, Howard has since developed into a top-flight starter.
He’s now double-trouble on opponents, serving as the No. 2 starter behind Appalachian State-bound hurler Tyler Jackson and continuing to catch when he’s not on the hill. He’s also one of the Rams’ most reliable hitters.
And colleges have taken notice. Howard recently signed a letter of intent to join Surry Community College’s program in 2009-10 on scholarship. The Knights want him primarily for his pitching.
“I’ve worked a on a lot of mechanical things,” Howard said. “Since last year, I’ve gotten a lot better. I’ve been working with coach McCann a lot.”
Some of Howard’s best outings have come in recent action. He struck out 17 in a win over North Surry last week, prompting Greyhounds coach Tim Collins to call Howard as good as any other No. 1 in the conference.
“Him doing as well as he’s doing now just goes to show you his work ethic,” McCann said. “Surry Community is getting a gem because of his work ethic.”
Howard calls most of Starmount’s pitches when he’s behind the plate. He may get to call his own pitches at times, too, on days when he’s pitching.
“That’s something I’ve never done,” McCann said. “But he’s been around long enough that I feel like he knows the game and he knows what we want to do.” Howard says he’s hoping a couple of years at Surry will parlay into a chance to continue playing baseball at Western Carolina, He plans to attend the Cullowhee school regardless of how his baseball career turns out to study construction technology.
To be able to do both would be a bonus.
“He’s got his priorities straight,” McCann said. “That says something about him to be 18 years old and have priorities like that.”
But first, there are the last weeks of his high school career, which could shape up to be pretty special.
If Jackson and Howard continue mowing down foes from the mound — they combined for 47 strikeouts and only three hits allowed in three recent conference wins — the Rams will be tough to unseat as conference champions. Things could be setting up well for a deep state playoff run also.
“He’s got a lot of God-given talent,” McCann said. “When you’ve got athletic ability you can do things like he’s done. It’s not like we took him from scratch. He had prior knowledge and somebody had worked with him in the past and he knew about pitching. We just built on that knowledge.”