By IAN WILSON
Dogs typically run in packs, and when it comes to the Okotoks Dawgs, they’re no exception.
One such pack headed south this winter and made its way to Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, where sophomores Justin King, Ryan Humeniuk and Corey Jackson were joined by freshmen Soren Graverson and Shaun Atamanchuk.
For 20-year-old King, the Okotoks native was encouraged to attend Indian Hills by fellow Dawgs Academy product Humeniuk.
“He helped convince me to go to the school,” said King, a left-handed pitcher and outfielder.
“I remember being in biology class with him sitting right next to me, always talking about how sweet it would be to go to the same school and have fun playing college ball together.”
Humeniuk also recalls chatting up the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I school to King.
“I do remember that it piqued his interest when I mentioned that we have our own chocolate milk machine,” Humeniuk told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“I just kept talking about the program as much as I could. He is a great ball player and person, and I knew he could help us win baseball games and we were lucky enough to get him.”
It took some maneuvering for King to join Humeniuk as a Falcon. King had already committed to play for Northern Kentucky University, but he didn’t feel as though the school was a great fit for him. In order to be released from that obligation, he had to find a junior college that would take him – and that’s where Indian Hills Community College came in.
“I had eight or nine colleges contact me in a matter of days. Indian Hills was the first school that contacted me,” said King, who has since signed on to play for the Alabama Crimson Tide after he’s done playing in Iowa.
Whatever they’ve put in that chocolate milk machine seems to be working for King and Humeniuk.
Through 38 games, King has 10 home runs, 42 RBI and a .331 batting average.
“I’m just sticking to a really basic approach at the plate,” said King, who will rejoin the Dawgs summer collegiate team in 2018.
“I think up the middle most of the time, not trying to hit the ball out of the park. I’m just trying to get the barrel on the ball, trusting the hands to work through it and the outcome is out of my control. If I stick to this approach I feel a lot more confident and it just kind of happens naturally.”
Humeniuk is also putting up impressive numbers for the Falcons this season.
The outfielder has gone deep nine times, batted in 49 teammates, touched home plate 41 times and swiped seven bases – all while maintaining a .336 batting average over 40 games.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound left-handed hitter says King has motivated him to be a better player this season.
“We are both pretty competitive guys so we are always trying to compete against one another, whether it be in the weight room or on the field,” said Humeniuk, who is set to become a bird of a different feather – with the University of Louisiana Monroe Warhawks – after he moves on from the Falcons.
“We are always trying to outwork each other and I think that it’s only pushed us both to get better. He is a great ballplayer and he works extremely hard, so he is a good guy to compete against.”
King praised Humeniuk’s work ethic, as well, calling him a player who “just won’t leave the batting cage.”
Humeniuk credits his upbringing for his tenacious approach.
“I was raised being told that if you are going to do something, do it to the best of your ability, and that nothing in life is just given to you. You have to work for it,” said Humeniuk, who hails from Stonewall, Manitoba.
“I guess I just carried that mentality over to baseball and I have been fortunate enough to have great coaches along the way to help me and guide me in the right direction.”
Both players also spoke highly of being able to play in the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) for the Dawgs in 2017, saying it helped to keep them sharp entering the junior college season.
“It was definitely a lot of fun and it gave me a chance to work on stuff all summer long against some older pitchers who have been in college baseball a lot longer than I have,” said Humeniuk, who played in 39 games for the Dawgs, batting .261 over 115 plate appearances.
“It also gave me the experience of playing in front of a serious crowd for the first time in my life and I have yet to beat that experience.”
IN THE DAWG HOUSE
Humeniuk has grown accustomed to having Okotoks players around him. Last year he roomed with southpaw pitcher Jared Spearing, another Dawgs Academy alum, and this year he’s sharing space with Shaun Atamanchuk.
“It’s definitely a plus rooming with Ryan. He is a great resource for information and he really showed me the ropes around here in the fall,” said Atamanchuk, a freshman pitcher from Beaumont, Alberta.
“Having some former Dawgs teammates is great because I’m not showing up to a new place alone.”
Indian Hills has two campuses – one in Ottumwa, the other located in Centerville – and a total student population of just 3,800. The baseball players spend most of their time in Centerville and Atamanchuk calls it a place where players love the grind.
“People say we work harder than any other school in the country and I believe that fully,” said the 6-foot-4, 238-pound right-handed hurler.
“We get after it during our 6 a.m. workouts, hit the books for our classes, and then when practice comes around we spend as much time on the field working as hard as we can before dinner. Then there’s guys who head right back to the weight room for a daily second lift and extra work. Like I said, it’s a grind but it’s all for the better of our baseball careers.”
Luckily for Atamanchuk and his Falcon teammates, they have someone around to keep the workload from being too much.
Calgarian Soren Graversen, a freshman first baseman and outfielder, is credited with providing much-needed laughs to his fellow Dawgs Academy graduates and Falcons teammates.
“The funniest guy would definitely have to be Soren. The guy has got a gift when it comes to being the jokester in the room,” said King of his lanky teammate.
Atamanchuk agreed: “He always finds a way to drop in small comments here and there that get you. He’s a great guy to have in the locker room and on the bench, keeps the energy high.”
Humeniuk called Graversen quick with a joke and a player that brightens the mood of those around him.
“He keeps the mood light, which is good because you need guys like that – it keeps the team morale up,” said Humeniuk.
The Dawg pack has even accepted a former rival into the fold.
Corey Jackson knew all the Dawgs Academy players very well from his time pitching for the Langley Blaze out of British Columbia.
“It’s pretty cool because we can always talk about the high school days and the Blaze-Dawgs rivalry is huge, so we still talk trash about each others’ high school programs all the time, but it’s all in good fun,” said Atamanchuk.
“We are teammates now and that’s all that matters. It helps that he throws fuel and has been dominant for us all year.”
While Jackson didn’t go to the Dawgs Academy, he did pitch for the Okotoks summer squad last season, appearing in 20 games. The right-handed pitcher picked up a win, a loss and a save, and struck out 23 batters over 20.1 innings pitched. He also posted a regular season earned-run average (ERA) of 2.65 and pitched two scoreless innings during the playoffs.
The sophomore has also pitched well for the Falcons – he’s 5-1, with a 3.24 ERA and 30 punch outs over 25 innings of work.
“I would rather have him as a teammate, that’s for sure. I did not have very much success off him in high school,” said Humeniuk.
“He has a pretty electric arm and is a super fun guy to be around. He has been a big arm out of the ‘pen for us this year and I think he will continue to be a big factor for us as the season moves forward.”
Indian Hills will need to maintain that pack mentality if they hope to improve on their 24-19 record and make noise in the playoffs. Maybe they’ll hear some barking down in Iowa soon.