The Grande Gator

By JOE McFARLAND

It’s not the wheat-strewn, oilwell-dotted prairie landscape his home province is known for. But Grande Prairie’s Lars Davis is more than content in his current locale.

After eight years of waiting, Davis finally received his American citizenship in April and can finally call Gainesville, Florida home. It has allowed him to finally focus on the task at hand: repeating as College World Series champions with the University of Florida Gators.

“Coming from Alberta, you have a season of three or four months a year,” Davis told Alberta Dugout Stories. “You’re lucky to get ten full weeks, while here it’s sunny everyday and the only issue is afternoon thundershowers.”

Davis is in his third season as volunteer assistant coach with the Gators, who have advanced to the World Series each season he has been with the school.

After a 6-3 loss to Texas Tech to open up the double-elimination College World Series on Sunday, the University of Florida bounced back on Tuesday with a 6-1 win over Texas. They will try to keep their season alive Thursday night in a rematch against Texas Tech, with the winner moving on and the loser going home.

Before the tournament started, we caught up with Davis about his journey from playing in the minor leagues to coaching at a Division 1 college.

CATCHING UP

Grande Prairie may be more well-known for its energy industry exports than its baseball products. But Davis was bucking that trend early and often growing up. After playing his minor ball in his community as well as Barrhead, the Grande Prairie Composite High School alum caught the eye of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now just the Rays), who took him in the 49th round of the 2003 MLB June Amateur Draft.

“It was an awesome moment to be able to hear my name called during that,” the catcher admitted. “But I knew I wasn’t going to sign during that period.”

Instead, he was heading to the Prairie Baseball Academy in 2004. Things didn’t start out all that well there, due in part to his previous experience.

Or lack thereof.

“He had maybe played 100 games in his life,” former coach Blair Kubicek told the Lethbridge Herald in an interview in 2008. “So he didn’t have a lot of experience.”

Kubicek called Davis a “high-strung competitor and a perfectionist at everything.” But it wasn’t until a post-season meeting that the light bulb clearly flicked on.

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“I played junior varsity my first year and had some good sit-downs with the coaches,” Davis said of Kubicek and Todd Hubka, who he still stays in contact with.

“Their knowledge is fantastic. We really sat down and discussed the players they had seen before and how I might actually have the ability to do it.”

Davis had a 2005 to remember. He was named “Dawg of the Year” at PBA after blasting seven home runs (which ranks second on their all-time list) and setting an academy record for hits. His success resulted in more looks from scouts and Davis was listed as the ninth-best Canadian prospect in that summer’s draft.

But he would have to wait to hear his name called again. Davis went south, earning himself a Division I athletic scholarship at the University of Illinois. He didn’t wait long to make an impact, leading the Fighting Illini in pretty much every offensive category on file in 2007 – as a result, he was named the Big Ten Player of the Year.

The Colorado Rockies made him their third-round choice in that summer’s draft, another special moment for the 6-foot-3, 205-pound backstop.

“My name was called earlier than I definitely thought it was going to be,” Davis laughed. “I was in Green Bay, Wisconsin playing for the Duluth Huskies of the Northwest League at the time and was getting ready for a game when a couple of teammates came up and started giving me high-fives and hugs.”

Davis was a little gobsmacked by the moment, as he thought he would be taken the next day, and so had set his sights on the game at hand, not even listening to the broadcast of the draft.

Little did he know, that was just the start of the journey.

BUS RIDES AND ALL-STARS

After being drafted, it was right to work for Davis. He finished 2007 with the Tri-City Dust Devils, watching as the Rockies made it all the way to World Series, only to be swept by the Boston Red Sox.

The next spring training was where he finally got to stack himself up against the best in the organization, which included fellow catchers Chris Iannetta and Yorvit Torrealba. He started with the Asheville Tourists of the South Atlantic League. It would begin a stretch of seven years bouncing between different levels of baseball, as high up as Triple-A with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox in the Pacific Coast League in 2013.

That season allowed him to get a glimpse of some of the upcoming talent in the Rockies’ system, including Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado, who Davis knew would turn into a star.

“You could just tell by his actions, by his at-bats, that he was going to be an all-star,” Davis said. “He was only 19 or 20 when he was competing against us. We were all 25 or 26 and he stood head and shoulders above the rest of us.”

Davis also called Arenado “one of those guys that you can’t imagine doing anything else in life.”

As for the Alberta kid, his tour through pro baseball would come to an end the following season, following a three-city journey through Lehigh Valley, Reading and Mobile. He regrets nothing about the career he churned out.

“You get to meet a lot of fantastic people that you’ll stay in contact with for the rest of your life,” Davis reminisced. “It’s almost like a second college, you know, in how people always talk about college as the time of your life. You get to meet your best friends and everybody there.”

He stays in contact with many of his old teammates, even those who took the next step to the majors.

“Professional baseball is a wonderful experience,” Davis stated. “It is a bit of a grind but it’s a great experience for anybody who has a chance to do it.”

A NEW LIFE

After retirement, many athletes are left with one undeniable question – what’s next? For Davis, he knew he wanted to stay involved in the game somehow and, as it turned out, the game wasn’t done with him either.

His wife, Katie, has been serving as the head athletic trainer for the University of Florida Gators softball team since 2013. That opened the door to Davis meeting the coaching staff while he was getting ready for his last pro season in 2014. He “threw some bullpen and hit batting practice” with them. That line of communication came in handy when he decided to take the next step in his baseball journey.

“It was just fortunate enough for me that the volunteer coach prior to me hopping on, Buddy Munro, was promoted to director of operations after the previous director got married and moved,” Davis recalled. “I knew my time was up playing and I always wanted to coach and thought it would be a great spot to start.”

The match made in heaven paid immediate dividends.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to come into a good situation,” Davis admitted. “The coaches here have done one heck of a job recruiting. Now that I’ve been here a couple of years and kind of know the ins and outs and have the ability to pick their brain, not to sound smug or anything, but I’ve been able to put my mark on the program and it’s been a lot of fun.”

And while he may have been a bit of an anomaly coming from Alberta at the time, Davis still pays attention to what’s happening north of the border, particularly what he’s still hearing from Kubicek and Hubka.

“The players are going to keep getting better and the more exposure that these guys are getting now with some of the scouting services and things like that has just been fantastic,” he said before alluding to the growth in the sport in Alberta. “We hope to see more and more players coming out of those academies coming down here to Division 1 baseball.”

Davis uses his own experience to not only guide his coaching, he also knows a lot of youngsters in his home province have the same aspirations he did.

“It always sounds cliche but follow your dreams as long as you can,” said Davis, who didn’t know baseball would be his path until his later-teen years. “I see a lot of guys who want to give up on it early but you have to give it your all.”

And while it still stings a bit every spring training to not be suiting up the way he’s done many years before, Davis is thankful for the opportunities he has been given.

“You’ll always have a chance to go to school, you’ll always have a chance to work,” he concluded. “But as long as you have a pair of shoes and a jersey on your back, you have a chance and my big message always is go for it as long as you can.”

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