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Sopko sacrifices self for Barbs

DeKALB – Bruise discovery is a postgame ritual for Trenton Sopko.

When the DeKalb catcher changes from his uniform to street clothes he expects to discover a new round of welts to have made a temporary imprint on his body. Sopko wears the bruises like a merit badge. They are the perks to playing the most physically taxing position on the field.

Foul tips ricochet off his body with tenacious velocity from inches away. He’ll drop down to his knees and use his body to smother pitches buried in the dirt. And there’s the occasional blocking of home plate, a show of bravado to save a run that will induce a head-on slide from a base runner churning around third at full speed.  

It might sound gruesome, but it comes with the territory of catching every inning of 34 varsity baseball games. Sopko might have more welts than a prize fighter at the end of the 12th round, but it won’t stop him from gearing up for today’s Class 3A Kaneland Regional final against Marmion at 11 a.m. in Maple Park.

DeKalb (18-15-1) ensured there would be a new Class 3A champion when it eliminated Kaneland with a 9-3 win Wednesday. Sopko gave the Barbs a 1-0 lead with an RBI single in the first inning, stole second and scored one hitter later.

“Trenton set the tone instantly against Kaneland,” said DeKalb coach Jake Howells, whose team had two road wins at Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference champion Kaneland this year. “I’ve never heard Trenton complain or wait for a break from catching. He sprints from the dugout to behind home plate every inning. He always has a bounce in his step that is infectious.”

There’s something about proximity to home plate that makes Sopko comfortable. As a catcher he’s as close as any player. As a hitter he uses the same approach. Taking a stance inches from the plate and utilizing a swing that dives into the plate further enhances what seems like a magnetic pull between Sopko and the baseball. Which is why he leads the Barbs in being hit by a pitch 11 times.

“I’ve been hit by pitch to only have the bruise show up a week later,” said Sopko a University of Dubuque recruit. “I’ve got to think back and try to remember how it happened. In our first doubleheader I was hit by pitch twice in the same inning.

“I don’t want to get beat on an outside pitch, so I get right on the plate. It gives me better plate coverage. If I get hit I say, ‘Whatever, at least we’ve got another base runner.’ Being hit 11 times this year is an average year. In eighth grade I was hit over 20 times.”

What seems like constant physical abuse hasn’t taken its toll on Sopko’s statistics. The senior has cemented himself as the Barbs’ cleanup hitter and has a team-best .384 average, 32 RBI and nine stolen bases.

“In terms of proximity, Trenton is right on top of the plate,” Howells said. “The way he steps and strides into the ball, it’s more likely the ball will go behind him than it will be caught in front of him.”

As most catchers are removed when they reach base for a courtesy runner, an IHSA rule designed to speed up play, Sopko’s speed and base-running savvy are to big of an asset to be removed from the DeKalb offense.

On defense, Sopko manages the Barbs’ pitching staff and will continue to call pitches for  Corey Nelson (4-2, 2.40 ERA) today, just as he has done all season. Armed with a care-free attitude, Howells said Sopko’s running commentary during the junior varsity portion of a doubleheader is a standup-worthy routine.

“When you’re playing high school baseball with your best friends, having fun is so important,” Sopko said. “You’ve got to stay loose and not be uptight. When you are laid back, good things happen.”

Because of his sense of humor, expect Sopko to elicit a laugh from teammates. Even if he has wince-inducing bruises.

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