By JOE MCFARLAND
It wasn’t that long ago Spruce Grove’s Kobe Hyland and Lethbridge’s Shawn Grandmont were teammates.
Back in 2015, the pair suited up for Alberta Red at the Tournament 12 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. While that team was loaded with talent including Clayton Keyes, Peter Hutzal, Aidan Huggins, Nic Cardinal and Quinton Kopjar, they weren’t able to get themselves to the final.
Now opponents, Grandmont and Hyland will be trying to get themselves to the promised land for their respective junior college teams at the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado this weekend.
Grandmont is a third baseman with the Southern Idaho Golden Eagles, who will open the tournament against Temple at 9am Saturday. Hyland will be playing shortstop for the Iowa Western Reivers in the noon matchup against Chattahoochee Valley Community College Pirates. If both teams win, they will be on a collision course for a Monday evening affair. If either loses, it’s not the end of the road, it will just mean the road is a little longer to get to the final next weekend.
Both Alberta products are relishing in the moments leading up to the tournament.
“Just being able to call yourself a national champion in such a cutthroat tournament, just that feeling,” Hyland told Alberta Dugout Stories. “Everyone’s going to know you played at Iowa Western and you won it all.”
The feeling is mutual for Grandmont.
“I think it’s just a cool experience representing not only Southern Idaho and Twin Falls and Region 18, but also back home in Alberta and Lethbridge,” Grandmont said, adding it gives them an opportunity to get the word out about the talent coming out of Alberta.
— Shawn Grandmont (@GRANDY12_) May 20, 2018
For Hyland and his Reivers teammates, the path to the World Series tournament has been a relative breeze. Heading into the weekend, they have won 35-straight games, finishing the season with a 53-5 record. Hyland has been a big part of that, sporting a .379 batting average with a home run, 29 RBIs and 8 stolen bases.
It’s really hard to win 35 baseball games in a row. But that’s what No. 2 Iowa Western has done. Now the Reivers are headed to Grand Junction, Colorado, in search of a national championship. My story: https://t.co/uq8R88ikny
— Kevin White (@KWhiteOWH) May 21, 2018
“Honestly, it’s just been the team chemistry,” Hyland admitted. “Coach has been focused on keeping us really involved in each other’s lives both on and off the field and it’s just translated onto the field. Just holding each other accountable has gotten us those wins for sure.”
The Reivers have been to the tournament in 18 times, including 11 in the last 14 seasons. But Hyland isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Just go in and just be accountable for each other, it’s all you can really do,” he said. “ The coaches have really told us to just play for each other and hold each other accountable and on a calm level.”
Hyland hasn’t had a tough time staying calm this season. He feels his game hit another level after he signed a letter of intent with the University of Houston to continue his post-secondary and baseball dreams.
“I found a new confidence coming up to the plate, telling myself that I’m getting a hit here and there’s no pitcher than can strike you out or get nothing that’s going to beat you,” the Prospects Academy product stated. “Just that confidence going up to the plate has helped keep that average up in the end.”
He also has the added incentive of watching his brother excel at a high level in the same sport. LaRon Smith is with the Canadian Junior Team right now. The two stay in touch constantly, on good days and bad.
“Especially with the seasons we’re having and teams talking to him and teams talking to me in the past,” the 6-foot, 195-pound infielder smiled. “Some have said that if they could have both of us on the team, they would and that’s a definite confidence booster.”
And while it’s not in the cards at the moment, that’s something Hyland would love to see happen someday.
“Oh I don’t even have the words,” Hyland beamed. “Just knowing your brother’s there with you and you’re at the same level, I mean, that’s honestly probably one of my ultimate goals. If not to keep playing baseball as long as I can, one day to meet up with my brother at the highest level we can achieve together.”
The path to the World Series for Grandmont and his Golden Eagles teammates hasn’t been as easy as Hyland and the Reivers.
🚨HOMER ALERT🚨 Eagles were trailing 1-0 until Shawn Grandmont went deep center field for a two run blast!💣 Eagles Lead 2-1 heading to the 5th. pic.twitter.com/fgRUIoZS8D
— CSI Baseball (@CSI_Baseball) May 19, 2018
The Golden Eagles are making their first appearance in the tournament in 25 years. Grandmont and most of his teammates were barely twinkles in their parents’ eyes at the time, a fact not lost on the 20-year-old.
“We’re really just trying to have fun here,” Grandmont smiled, later harkening to a story he heard from his head coach, Boomer Walker.
“Last time he was here was when his dad was coaching and he was a little kid,” Grandmont recalled. “It was a cool experience for him.”
In fact, Walker was the 12-year-old bat boy when the Reivers won the championship in 1984 under his father, Skip Walker.
Another interesting connection comes courtesy of one of Grandmont’s former coaches at Vauxhall Academy, Jim Kotkas. The current Jets assistant coach was a member of that Golden Eagles championship team 34 years ago.
“He told that it was the coolest experience of his life,” Grandmont told Alberta Dugout Stories of Kotkas. “So I’m really just trying to soak it all in, win or lose. Hoping to win, but it will be a great experience either way.”
Grandmont is a big reason why everyone’s able to reminisce about that team now. In the regional final against Arizona Western, the 6-foot, 185-pound keystone sacker drew a walk to open up the bottom of the 11th inning. He advanced to second on a bunt then scored on a single to centrefield to claim the walk-off victory.
FINAL: CSI 4, Arizona Western 3 (11 innings)
Travis Bohall plays hero again with a walkoff RBI single, scoring Shawn Grandmont.
The Golden Eagles are heading to the NJCAA DI World Series. pic.twitter.com/ZBW54betta
— Victor Flores (@VictorFlores_TN) May 19, 2018
He thinks it’s those kinds of experiences that will help his team through this tournament.
“Getting this far into the playoffs has been a big accomplishment so obviously we’re doing something right,” Grandmont said modestly. “We just need to keep doing what we’re doing. Even if we get down, this year we’ve had a lot of comebacks so we know not to give up.”
Both Hyland and Grandmont aren’t thinking too far past the JUCO World Series at the moment. They both simply want to breathe in the experience, then they can start looking forward to the summer. Both also realize that they are helping grow the game in their home province by competing at a high level.
“Over the years, more and more Lethbridge players have taken baseball more serious and it’s showing,” Grandmont said. “It’s big knowing that you can make it down south and get scholarships to play baseball.”
The talent pool is there, in the eyes of both, it’s just a matter of exposure, something this tournament will give.
“You go out there and you see a lot of kids that could be in really good places and they just aren’t because we don’t get scouted as much,” Hyland added before reflecting on his time in baseball, in particular going to the World Championships in Japan as a member of Team Canada. “It’s really surreal to have all these chances I’ve had in my life in general.”
“It’s been an awesome ride and I couldn’t have asked for anything else,” he laughed. “You really look back and you’re like ‘damn, I’ve been pretty fortunate.’”
The old teammates might also get a chance to reconnect at the tournament, which might also give them a chance to reflect on the opportunity about to come their way. Both are sophomores in junior college, meaning they will be looking to greener fields in the fall.
“Definitely a huge incentive of mine to get all these wins and get a ring,” Hyland stated. “Because then you show up to that school and everyone knows you’re a winner.”
“A lot of players go the junior college route but it’s really been a good two years,” Grandmont added. “There have been a lot of ups and downs. But it’s been good to learn from it all, making myself better. And now getting to experience this tournament.”
And while both are hoping to bring home the championship, they also know this is the best time of year for college baseball.
“I love being this far into the post-season,” Hyland concluded. “This is when it gets super-fun and you get to make some memories.”