By: Jeff Roberson
Stuart Turner, Will Allen, and Austin Knight were the every day catchers the past three seasons for Ole Miss. One of those years Ole Miss was in the College World Series. Every year the Rebels were in the NCAA Tournament.
Turner won the Johnny Bench Award as the nation’s best college catcher. Will Allen was a finalist the following year, and Austin Knight was a four-year veteran and effective leader for the Rebels.
In college, Ole Miss coaches Mike Bianco, Carl Lafferty, and Mike Clement were all catchers.
A younger Henri Lartigue, even as a high school senior when Turner was the UM catcher, relished the fact that he was going to be a catcher in this program, learning from and working with these men to grow his game. Although challenging, Lartigue was up to the task because he wanted to be the best he can be.
“That’s 100 percent true,” said the Southaven High School product. “Every day you have to come here ready to work. No days off. I enjoy being at the field probably more than anything else. I just want to play hard all the time and be the guy teammates look up to.”
This year all that hard work and dedication has paid off. Waiting his turn and learning the game from those even more experienced players and coaches, Lartigue is now the best he’s been.
He leads the team in hitting at .351. In Southeastern Conference games, that average is .391. His work behind the play has been solid, and he has been a part of some game-winning hits and game-saving defensive plays.
Against Auburn in the series finale it was a walkoff single. Against Kentucky in the final game of that series, it was a walkoff home run.
Lartigue tries to stay in the moment and not over-complicate things. That’s the best way he sees success, he says.
“(Against Kentucky) you don’t want to make the moment too big,” he said of his three-run homer that won the game 7-5 as the Rebels trailed by a run. “There was only one out at the time, and I just wanted to make sure I was giving us a chance to win, just have a quality at-bat. We didn’t need to win the game with that at-bat. We happened to, but I just wanted to give our team a chance to win the game.”
It’s that perspective which, among other aspects of his game, allows Lartigue to succeed at his craft. And for his team to win its way into position for some special things the last few weeks of the season.
“The SEC is tough,” the third-year junior said. “It doesn’t matter what happened the previous day. There’s going to be another guy on the mound probably just as good as the day before. The teams have really good hitters. We really try to just focus on one game at a time. It’s not 10 three-game series. It’s 30 battles. They all count the same. We just want to win as many of them as we can.”
The Rebels, 39-13, play Arkansas State tonight in Jonesboro. The Red Wolves, 24-26, have already lost to Ole Miss this season by a 4-3 margin in Oxford.
That stellar record for the Rebels has come, in part, as a result of Lartigue and some of the plays he has been a part of, not just on offense but defense as well. The most memorable of those are the throws into the plate from centerfield by J.B. Woodman. Teams have learned, or should have, not to run when Woodman catches a fly ball and they have a runner at third base, or even second base when the ball is fielded by Woodman after a hit.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of so many plays at home plate in my career,” Lartigue said. “(Woodman) just has a great feel to get the ball to home plate. He was a high school quarterback. He knows how to get it there. He wants to give me a chance to make a tag, make a play. He’s been able to do that all year.”
Lartigue said experience is one of the main keys to being successful at this level.
“There’s no reps like game reps. You have to do one thing before you do the other. You can’t tag a guy out without the ball on a play at home plate. With hitting, you want to give your team a chance to win the game, and not just win the game with one swing. It can happen at times as it did (against Auburn and Kentucky in those finales). But I always want to go out there and give my team the best chance to win.”
He gives a major nod to the Ole Miss coaching staff for his development, in addition to his own hard work and persistence.
“Ton of credit to our coaches. They’re terrific with our catchers. They were catchers. I can’t thank them enough with how much they’ve helped me over the years.
“You have to be a student of the game, and learn from each pitch. As a catcher you can’t take pitches off. You’re always involved. It involves a great deal of focus. I think that’s why I love catching so much. I feel like I’m a really active kid. I don’t like sitting around a lot. So catcher is the perfect position for me all along.”