Jake Gonce remembers being in the dugout last season at his younger brother Brady’s game against Seven Lakes.
Brady, then a junior catcher on the Tompkins' junior varsity team, was having trouble receiving the ball behind the plate while he felt the umpire was squeezing the strike zone.
“He was asking me, ‘What am I doing wrong?’” recalled Jake, an outgoing senior catcher who spent the past three years on the Falcons varsity team. “It was a cool moment that I could be right there with him. After we talked, it was a whole different ballgame.”
For the Gonces, baseball is the same game.
In many ways.
Jake, Brady and Caden, a freshman on the Tompkins sophomore team, all played catcher for their respective teams last season. All three were part of District 19-6A championships ballclubs; Jake and Brady doing so for the second straight year.
Not to belabor this whole brotherly catcher’s fixation, but there’s another sibling coming through the pipeline who’s also found a spot behind the dish. Luke, an incoming eighth grader, is a catcher for his tournament team.
“Last year (in 2018), it was cool when Jake and I each won district titles,” Brady said. “This year, having Caden win was pretty amazing. Hopefully when Luke comes up, he can win one, too.”
Tompkins’ varsity went 26-8-1 overall, 10-2 in the district. The Falcons’ JV went 16-4, 10-1. The sophomore team was 18-2, 9-2. The varsity team’s 26 wins tied the school record.
Jake was a second-team All-District 19-6A selection after throwing out 25 percent of base stealers, allowing only 39 stolen bases this year. As a junior, he was part of a catching unit that gave up only 20 stolen bases. Meanwhile, the Falcons had 90 stolen bases on the offensive side.
“I’m a big proponent of baserunning,” Tompkins coach Kenneth Humphries said. “Any time you can get an extra 90 feet on the base paths, that’s a big advantage for us. Jake is a great defensive catcher. He did outstanding this year.”
Jake hit .400 in district play, his bat coming alive as the Falcons closed in on the district title and made a postseason run to the area round of the playoffs. Willing to heed the advice of his coaches, he altered his offensive approach and worked on his mechanics.
“Sometimes, kids don’t want to change things if they don’t think it will do anything for them,” Humphries said. “I think he bought into it. It paid dividends for him. By the end of the season, he really started hitting well.”
Jake, who recently announced he will continue his baseball career at Odessa College, said his passion for catching started at age 12. He followed the footsteps of his uncle Garris Gonce, the brother of Jake’s dad, Justin. Garris caught for the University of South Carolina and was a 31st-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2002. He played 22 games that year for the New Jersey Cardinals, a minor league club in the New York-Pennsylvania League.
“I was pretty good at it, so I stuck with it and worked harder at it to get to where I am today,” Jake said. “The defensive part of baseball as a catcher comes first. I work on blocking, receiving and throwing.”
Jake opened Humphries’ eyes as a sophomore on the varsity when he threw out two runners in the third game of a playoff series. This year, he allowed only five passed balls, despite battling injuries at the end of the season.
“He did a great job for us,” Humphries said. “With catchers, it’s more about the defense than anything. Allowing only 39 steals, I’ll take that any day over a bad defensive catcher who can only hit.”
In their spare time, you’ll find the Gonce brothers on the diamond, working on their craft.
“I’ve always looked up to Jake and Brady,” Caden said. “I’ve always wanted to play the same position as them. They’ve always helped me get to where I’m at.”
One without the other just isn’t an option for the Gonces. What one does, so must the next.
“We’re all the same,” Jake said. “You put us behind the plate, we’re all pretty solid. I’ve always pushed them harder on just the drills and the little things we do. That’s what pays off at the end of the day. It was a big deal for me to see my brothers doing good. It was really cool to be a team leader and tell the younger guys what to do, and be an example for them.
“Winning a district title, it’s a very special thing that I’m really proud to be a part of. This year, we came into the season knowing we could be a pretty good team. Once we got going, we knew we could play with anybody.”
Brady wants to continue in Jake’s footsteps.
“He’s my older brother, so I’ve always looked up to him,” Brady said. “He’s kind of like a coach, so I can take his knowledge and make myself a player like him one day. We’re all always practicing together. We’re like a three-man team, pretty much.”
Caden took up catching as a 10-year-old when a new team he began playing for was searching for a blocker behind the plate. He finds himself always trying to outdo his older brothers.
“I’ve always been trying to compete against them,” he said, “see who can block the most balls, who can throw out the most runners.”
From the sounds of it, Humphries has a few more years of this family lineage to work with.
“The younger guys are hard-nosed kids,” he said. “They play hard. They’re all good defensive catchers. Hopefully they keep working on that.”