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SIU's Sydney Jones (center) is congratulated by Maddy Vermejan (left) and Katelyn Massa (99) after driving in the winning run in the ninth inning against SEMO at Charlotte West Stadium on Thursday in Carbondale. The Salukis won 2-1.

Once upon a time, Katelyn Massa was a shortstop. Little did she know that on a softball diamond in Wildwood, Missouri, her days of ranging into the 5.5 hole to make plays and gun runners out at first was about to end.

“We were playing in Little League and I threw the ball too hard to where my first baseman couldn’t catch it,” Massa said. “A travel ball coach saw that and said, ‘We want her and she’s going to be a catcher.’”

That turned into a pretty shrewd decision, one that continues to pay dividends years later for Massa and the SIU program.

Going into Wednesday’s non-conference game at Murray State, Massa was on track to set the Salukis’ single-season record for RBI. She has 36 in 35 games, just 15 off the mark set by Allie VadeBoncoeur and Katie Wilson, with 20 games plus the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament left.

Massa is also batting .350 with seven homers and 20 walks in 103 at-bats. Her on-base percentage is .460 and her slugging percentage is .650. She leads the team in nine different categories.

Add in that she’s doing all this while catching almost every inning of every game, and you have a player who is arguably as valuable to her team as any player around.

“Her game just keeps getting better every day,” SIU second baseman Maddy Vermejan said of Massa. “She knows when she has to make adjustments. She knows the game, obviously. She comes up big all the time.”

Massa didn’t take long to start learning the game. Born on June 3, 1998, Massa was — by age 8 — going through drills with her older brother’s team before their games. By the time she graduated from Eureka High School, she was a two-time All-State performer who drilled 28 double and knocked in 76 runs for her career.

SIU won her services, in part because of its location.

“I’m very family-oriented, and I didn’t want to be too far from home,” she said. “I didn’t want to go somewhere where I was just another player and my teammates were just other players.”

Before Massa could play a game for the Salukis, though, she had to make one adjustment. She wore No. 6 during her high school career, but shortstop Savannah Fisher already had that one. Massa figured 66 wasn’t a good idea, so she opted for the highest possible number.

“I just chose it,” Massa said of No. 99. “I love it. I don’t think I could wear another number now.”

The newly-numbered Massa hit .297 with five homers and 22 RBI as a freshman, starting 43 games and helping SIU capture the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title. That was just the appetizer for a whopper of a sophomore year in which Massa has hit pretty much everything everyone has thrown.

It’s one thing to have a quick bat, a good eye and the power to make a mistake fly about 250 feet. Add a catcher’s ability to recognize different spins and speeds, as they must do when guiding their pitcher through about 100 pitches or so, and you have Massa’s diverse skillset.

“The spin of the ball, I know where it’s going because I’m a catcher,” she said. “I think it helps with hitting. I’m thankful for that.”

While the young Salukis continue their search for the consistency that could help net them consecutive NCAA berths, they can look to Massa for power, production and leadership by example.

“Everyone who experienced it wants to do it again,” she said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we know we’re never out of it. We can play up to that level.”

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