By IAN WILSON
The Dawg days of summer are over, and gone with them is the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) season.
Many of the Okotoks Dawgs players and coaches have bid summer in Alberta adieu, having packed up and left for the colleges they plan to attend in the U.S. over the school year.
A first-round playoff exit to the Edmonton Prospects in five games brought a dejecting end to the season for the Dawgs and their fans. But the post-season heartbreak should not overshadow what was a special season in Okotoks.
Before the season’s first pitch was thrown, the team made it clear they were ready to celebrate their 10th anniversary in the town of 29,000 with tenacious and talented play that was worthy of the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy.
What followed was an impressive and record-breaking season.
First came the hits. Homegrown second baseman Matt Lloyd was happy to provide those.
LET’S GO STREAKING
Lloyd hit .402 during the regular season and only failed to record a hit in three games. Eight of those hits left the ballpark, but the highlight was a 24-game hitting streak.
“I honestly didn’t even really notice I was on a hitting streak until about seventeen games or something like that, so I didn’t really think about it,” Lloyd told Alberta Dugout Stories shortly after he was named WMBL Canadian Rookie of the Year.
“Then every game after that I was kind of like, ‘Holy smokes, I need to get a hit right here to keep the streak alive.’ I think it was around game twenty or twenty-one I was going into the ninth inning with two outs and I was really pressing to get a hit. But it’s hard to hit like that.”
By the time the streak was over, Lloyd admitted he was relieved to not be thinking about it every game.
“I feel like I was better off at the beginning of the streak, just not really thinking about it. Honestly, there’s a part of me that’s glad that it’s over. I can just relax and play the game,” said Lloyd, who had 22 multi-hit games and 38 RBI on the season.
While Lloyd provided the jabs that paced the Dawgs high-powered offence, Kody Funderburk delivered the knockout punches.
The 6-foot-4 first baseman led the league in home runs with 15, which was also a new team record.
“I didn’t really say I wanted to get a certain amount of home runs, but once I started getting close to ten, that was the goal,” said Funderburk, who also spent time at DH and pitched nine clean innings out of the bullpen over the regular season.
“When I hit a couple over ten towards the end of the year I said, ‘Okay, fifteen would be a really nice number’ …. Luckily, I did it in the last game.”
The former Edmonton Prospect also collected 55 RBI and batted .339 on his way to being named the WMBL’s Most Valuable Player.
“I didn’t even know there was an MVP of the league,” said Funderburk, who hails from Queen Creek, Arizona.
“I knew there was an all-star award, but I didn’t know there was an MVP. When I found out, I was pretty excited.”
Funderburk’s display of power helped lift the Dawgs team home run total to 50, which was a club record and Okotoks also led the league in runs scored.
On the mound, Anthony Balderas and Justin Vernia were spectacular. In 40 innings of work, Balderas struck out 36 batters, collected a team-leading five wins and posted an ERA of 2.47. His stellar campaign made him one of eight Dawgs to earn all star honours.
Vernia, meanwhile, fanned 29 batters in 38 innings, picked up four wins and had an ERA of 2.36.
Closer Tyler Burdett, also a WMBL all-star, had a banner year coming out of the bullpen. His 13 saves led the league and in 24 innings he struck out 25 hitters while putting up a minuscule 0.75 ERA.
There were other standout performances through the summer – from the bump, in the field and at the plate.
Put it all together and the result was a franchise record for wins as the Dawgs went 35-13 on the year.
The achievements did not go unnoticed. Attendance climbed to a total of 94,397 over 23 games at Seaman Stadium, resulting in an average of 4,104 fans per game. That was a 23% boost from the 3,329 per game attendance experienced in 2016.
Funderburk, who played two seasons for the Mesa Community College Thunderbirds in Arizona and will suit up for Dallas Baptist University this year, noticed a big difference in the crowds in Alberta.
“At Mesa, we’ve got maybe max sixty people at the games. We would get parents and girlfriends, that was pretty much it,” said Funderburk, adding a trip to Waterton Lakes National Park was one of his off-the-field highlights this summer.
“In Okotoks, you get almost 4,000 fans every single night. Last year in Edmonton, I think we averaged around close to 2,000. That atmosphere is completely different, going from playing in front of nobody to four thousand.”
While Edmonton put an early end to a fine season in Okotoks, the Prospects could not match what the Dawgs did at the gate. A total of 38,399 fans went to Prospects games at rebranded ReMax Field in Edmonton, resulting in an average regular season attendance of 1,670 people. That garnered the Prospects a 19th overall average attendance ranking for summer collegiate ball in North America. But with a seating capacity of 9,200 at ReMax Field, there is room for growth in Edmonton.
The Dawgs, meanwhile, will try to build on a summer to remember by converting regular season dominance into playoff success in 2018.