Sophia Mikula on the Bench
Weir High catcher becomes first Johnny Bench Award softball winner in West Virginia
WEIRTON — Sophia Mikula’s parents and high school coach knew she would be a star catcher for the Weir High softball team long before her freshman year began.
When she took her first swing with a wiffle bat at the age of 2 and made solid contact, Erica Mikula knew she would be a ballplayer and not a dancer.
When she put on the catcher’s gear and caught for her older brother, Levi, in the back yard, David Mikula knew she would be a catcher and nothing else.
When softball head coach Frank Sisinni saw her in eighth-grade all-star games during the summer, he knew nobody else would compete for the starting spot.
Sophia Mikula has lettered three times already in volleyball, basketball and softball, and she just finished her junior year. She was named to the West Virginia second-team all-state, Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Class 5A first-team and all-valley squads earlier this month.
She received another honor that nobody else in West Virginia can say, and it’s the Johnny Bench Award. Sophia Mikula is one of 10 winners and the only for West Virginia softball.
“Everyone else is finding out from what we knew since Day 1,” Sisinni said. “When she started catching in her freshman year, we knew we were set. In the game of softball or baseball, if you have a solid catcher and pitcher, you can do some damage.
“We know that every year she’s going to progress. Without looking at the numbers, it was a slow progress. But, man, the numbers really blew up this year.”
The award is given to the top baseball and softball catchers in college, as well the high school level in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. This is the first year since its inception in 2000 that it has been expanded to the high school level, as well as collegiate softball.
Bobby Bench, Johnny Bench’s son, called Athletic Director Donna Ferguson to spread the good news. Johnny Bench, one of the greatest catchers in MLB history, even left a voicemail.
“I didn’t even know it was an award until I got it,” Sophia Mikula said. “Nobody else in high school got it before, so I didn’t know what it was. I know who Johnny Bench is, just not the award. I thought I would just get a plaque and that’s it.”
The 10 winners are invited to a luncheon Tuesday at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, as well as a baseball and softball catching clinic at the P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy. They also will be honored that evening on the field during pregame ceremonies before the Reds meet the Astros.
Erica and David Mikula are worried about what to wear for the occasion.
“I could tell early that she was better than the boys because I coached a boys’ team,” David Mikula said. “You just knew she could catch. She used to play first base because she was the only one who could catch the ball. When she developed into a catcher, that was it. She loved it.”
Her catching duties began when she was 10 years old and her team didn’t have someone behind the plate. Sophia Mikula gladly volunteered to see if she would like it.
“At first, we just needed one, so I said I would do it. Then I liked it because I like being involved on every play, helping the pitchers and helping my team as much as I can,” she said. “It took a little while to get the hang of it because it’s not easy to catch on to.”
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that Sophia Mikula caught every inning. During the last three seasons, she put the gear on for 84 of the 86 games. She once sat as a freshman and pitched later in the 2018 season. She’ll never do those two again.
“We rested her one game, and then she gave me the look of, ‘I’m fine. I’ll keep going,'” Sisinni said. “It’s one thing for a player to say that, but we always look at the fatigue level. She just got stronger the longer the game went, even during a doubleheader. The production matched that, so we never have to worry about pulling her. We let her pitch once, and she didn’t like it as much.”
Along with never missing a pitch, she also never sat in volleyball or basketball this year. She never got seriously injured or fouled out, so there was no excuse to sit.
“I never want to sit,” she said. “I always told coach Sisinni, ‘Please don’t take me out. I want to play.’ I think I stay in great shape because I play sports all year long. Even in the summer, I play basketball, volleyball and softball. I never stop, which makes kind of it shocking that I never had a major injury.”
Sophia Mikula added that there are many late nights to complete her homework after games.
When she’s not playing, especially during the summer, she works at Franciscan University of Steubenville full time. She pulls weeds, plants flowers and other landscaping duties.
“She never takes a day off. She works 40 hours a week at Franciscan University, and she’s playing summer basketball right now,” Erica Mikula said. “She’s just having fun and never complains. Actually, an old friend called and asked her to come catch her (Wednesday). It’s her only night off, and she said yes.
“Even if I was her age, I couldn’t do it. She gets it from her father and brothers. She’s a natural.”
Committing an error is almost as rare as seeing another catcher for the Red Riders. She has three errors in three years, including none as a freshman.
Catching is the hardest position in baseball and softball. Batting first may be the toughest in the lineup, and Sophia Mikula does that well, too.
This past season, she batted .500 in 104 at-bats with 12 doubles, scored 44 runs and drove in 28. She also struck out only four times.
As an all-state special mention last year, she hit .376 with 28 runs scored. In her freshman campaign, she also scored 28 times with a batting average of .274.
“I like batting leadoff because, if I can get on, it pumps everyone else up to try and drive me in. I also like setting the tone,” she said.
Sophia Mikula wasn’t always Weir High’s leadoff hitter. She began this year batting second but moved up shortly after the season began.
“She was still productive in the No. 2 spot, but something happened with her maturity and embracing that role,” Sisinni said. “She set the tone and sparked us in the leadoff spot.”
As any star athlete normally would, Sophia Mikula thanked her teammates and coaches for helping her reach this level. She grew up with most of her teammates, so it’s probably no surprise for them to hear about the Johnny Bench Award.
“We always have good competitiveness on the team,” Sophia Mikula said. “Whoever has the highest batting average, somebody’s always trying to top it. It’s friendly competition. We never try to bring anybody else down. I have teammates that I’m really close with, and we just push each other a lot. I have to thank the pitchers I’ve caught for always helping me out and my coaches for helping learn how to block.”
Sophia Mikula’s older brother, Levi, will be entering his third year at West Virginia University this fall. He was a senior on the state runner-up baseball team two years ago. She also has a twin brother, Tanner, who is a member of the basketball and baseball squads.
Top MLB players and prospects have won the Johnny Bench Award in the previous years. Former MVP Buster Posey is a member of the group, as well as Washington Nationals backstop Kurt Suzuki and former Cleveland Indians players Ryan Garko and Kelly Shoppach.
To Erica Mikula’s knowledge, the award begins with the Reds Scouting Department. After it gathers all of the catchers’ stats, Johnny and Bobby Bench decide who are most deserving.
(Catullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)