Behind the Mask

Selfless Mangum continues making name for Cuthbertson – and himself

by Aaron Garcia

Cuthbertson senior catcher John Mangum has helped manage one of the state’s top pitching staffs while also emerging as a star himself. Aaron Garcia/UCW photo

There’s a reason the catcher position is so often examined. Baseball, as a sport, has long been fodder for poets and press-box philosophers attempting to articulate exactly its attraction. It’s a finesse sport based on precision and impeccable timing, and when it’s done well, it causes ballparks to be compared with cathedrals.

And with good reason, since it seemingly takes divine intervention to hit a curveball.

But the catcher position is a bit of a contradiction to the artful nature of the game. In a sport with recognizable stars, catchers wear masks. In a sport that’s considered “non-contact.” catchers block runners from the plate and are the ones who most often collect bruises and bandages. They certainly don’t get the credit that’s afforded the guys with the cleaner uniforms at the end of a game.

That’s exactly how John Mangum likes it.

For the third consecutive season, Mangum is the ringleader of what has become one of the greatest shows in Union County. In just three seasons, the Cuthbertson baseball team has built a reputation as a pitching powerhouse that has featured current college players Peter Hendel (University of North Carolina) and Preston Morrison (Texas Christian University), and this year’s Cavs ace, Cameron Tekker (Clemson signee).

Last season the Cavs finished with a 24-3 record and won their second consecutive Rocky River 1A/2A conference tournament before advancing to the second round of the Class 2A state playoffs. On the mound, the Cavs recorded a 1.18 ERA and held opponents to just a .134 batting average.

This season the Cavs are off to a 6-1 start and again resemble a bona fide contender for the state crown. And with Hendel and Morrison off competing in college, there’s been one constant, one bridge between the program’s precocious beginnings and its current success – Mangum.

It’s no coincidence, said Cavs coach Travis Little. Back when Little was shopping Mangum to different college recruiters, he used a metaphor – though somewhat gruesome when taken out of baseball context – that he felt best epitomized what made Mangum such a valuable prospect.

“You could stick a screwdriver in his chest and he’d still go out there and play nine innings,” Little would tell them.

It probably only furthered his point that high school baseball games are only seven innings long. But Little’s message was that Mangum was uncommonly tough, driven and, most of all, competitive.

“I think he was definitely born (a leader),” said Little. “When he walks on the field, no other player has any issue with taking any type of criticism or any type of advice (from him) because they know, no matter how hard they work, (Mangum is) always working twice as hard.

“They realize how committed he is. He’s one of those guys that creates wins out of dust sometimes. When the other guys see him going the extra mile, it obviously motivates them.”

The recruiters didn’t need much convincing. Last season Mangum was listed as a pre-season All-American by Louisville Slugger, and he didn’t disappoint. He batted .458 with a team-leading eight home runs, including a walk-off homer over rival Piedmont in the semifinals of the conference tournament. As a result, he chose to sign a National Letter of Intent to continue his career with N.C. State University next season over programs such as Appalachian State, Western Carolina and the Charlotte 49ers.

But his toughness and fierce competitive streak aside, Tekker said Mangum offers a comforting, steady presence behind the plate.

“You definitely know any pitch you throw, he’s going to be back there blocking it for you,” Tekker said. “It’s a great deal for the team having him back there behind the plate. He’s always working hard and doing what he can for the team.”

Mangum said it never occurred to him to be intimidated by the big-name players serving pitches to him. He said after growing up with most of his teammates on baseball diamonds across the area, “When they’re on the mound and I’m behind the plate, it’s just another day. We’re on the same page and that works out a lot.”

If it seems as though Mangum took to the varsity game quickly once he joined the Cuthbertson program, it’s because he was practically a grizzled veteran when he joined the Cavs as a sophomore. The year before, Mangum cracked Weddington High’s starting lineup as a freshman, fielding pitches from standouts Anthony Boone and Danny Yelverton while also facing opposing pitchers from the state’s top conference, the Southwestern 4A, which then included Weddington.

“Back then, I definitely played and felt like I was ready, but looking back, I’m surprised I did it, being such a little kid,” Mangum said. “I was 14 years old – I wasn’t even shaving yet. To look back on it and look at all the things I did and the way I played — I guess you could say the swagger I had – a bunch of people thought I was cocky because I honestly felt like I was (6 foot 4), 225 pounds out there playing with the big dogs.”

In actuality, he was closer to 5-9, 150. But on that big a stage against those kinds of players, he couldn’t act like it.

“That’s how you have to roll with it because if you don’t, you’re going to be left behind,” he said.

That mind-set has proven useful this year as well, as Mangum has struggled at the plate. After posting a combined .418 batting average his first two years as a Cav, Mangum is currently hitting just .167.

“It’s something that just has to take care of itself,” Mangum said of his offensive struggles. “My swing’s not messed up. It’s mostly a mental battle for me.”

Doubt has a way of eroding a players’ footing in baseball, and stress will only make them sink further. Mangum has known this since his freshman year. He also knows the hits will come and his batting average will elevate. And true to form, Mangum isn’t hoping it happens for his sake.

“At any point I could just snap out of it,” Mangum said. “I have a feeling that’s going to happen pretty soon.

“You can’t sit there and dwell on it. I have to come out and produce for my team to help my team win.”

And when he does, people will notice.

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