Checkmate (Feature)

By Louie St. George III
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Wearing a ballcap and a pair of batting gloves, with tape stripped around both wrists, Kyle Henke cradles a baseball bat and slips into his familiar hitting stance.

The Piedra Vista senior just looks like a ballplayer, like a guy born to turn a flick of those well-taped wrists into doubles and home runs. But Henke is about more than baseball. He belongs to National Honor Society and Knowledge Bowl. He’s collected a grade-point average that exceeds 4.0 and is in the top five of his class. He’s a standout football player and an avid hunter.

And the man knows his chess.

Henke, a catcher on the diamond, boasts a lengthy chess resumé. In second grade, he was ranked, “like second in the state.” He traveled across the country playing chess, played on his elementary and middle school teams, and owns what he described as “30-some” trophies.

“I was a huge chess player,” said Henke.

Perhaps, then, Henke’s success behind the plate — and at the plate — stems from his ability to strategize, study and process information. Catchers are always thinking. They must know which pitchers throw which pitches, along with the strengths and weaknesses of opposing hitters.

A three-year starter for the Panthers, Henke loves baseball for its reliance on wits.

“A fan’s perspective, you throw the ball and you hit it, but there is so much to the game, so many fine details,” he said after practice Monday evening.

Henke joined PV’s varsity as a freshman. A year later, he moved into the starting lineup and hit better than .400 while helping the Panthers advance to the Class 4A state championship game against Farmington High. Last season, Henke again topped the .400 mark and was a team leader in nearly every offensive category as PV returned to the state tournament, losing to Moriarty in the quarterfinals.

“I watched him play when he was down at Pee Wee Reese and I knew then that he was going to be a ballplayer,” Panthers coach Dick Laughlin said.

Laughlin, no doubt, enjoys penciling the consistent and power-packed Henke into his lineup each game. The coach, though, mixed it up last weekend at the St. Pius Tournament, where he bumped Henke from the No. 3 spot in the order to leadoff. With an on-base percentage north of .600, the move made sense. And it paid off as Henke routinely reached base and belted a pair of home runs.

The offensive surge didn’t surprise Laughlin, who has watched his veteran backstop put in the necessary time to become a Division I prospect.

“He’s the guy that stays after practice for extra hacks in the batting cage, he’s the guy that is always trying to get better, no matter where you put him,” Laughlin said. “He’s the type that, no matter where you put him or what his role is, he strives to be the best at that role.”

Henke hopes to get his Division I shot at Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The school, he said, has shown considerable interest, and it’s an ideal match considering Henke is interested in one day flying planes for a living.

College can wait, though. Henke and the Panthers are too busy chasing an elusive state crown. They are off to a 7-2 start and have a roster packed with varsity experience, including a deep and formidable pitching staff.

“That would mean the world to me,” Henke said of wrapping his arms around a Blue Trophy. “It’s been my goal for four years.”

State title or no state title, Laughlin doesn’t relish the thought of replacing his longtime catcher and one-time chess champ.

“We’ll take this season as it comes, and then we’ll worry about next season,” Laughlin said, laughing.