It’s a town that became known as the “Potato Capital of the West” – but Vauxhall is attracting a different kind of tater to southern Alberta these days.
Visitors to Jets Stadium can now watch Vauxhall Academy of Baseball players hit home runs – often referred to as “taters” – while they munch on french fries from the concession stand, allowing spectators to enjoy both forms of spuds at the same time.
And while Vauxhall may seem like it’s in the middle of nowhere, the baseball academy has helped put the community – located 36 kilometres north of Taber, 69 kilometres south of Brooks and 114 kilometres west of Medicine Hat – on the map.
For our second installment of our “1 Thru 9” baseball academy profiles, we spoke with Les McTavish, the head coach and director of operations at Vauxhall Baseball Academy. McTavish gave us the rundown on being a student athlete in the town of 1,200 people. Here’s what he had to say:
1. What year was Vauxhall Baseball Academy established?
The Vauxhall Academy opened its doors in the fall of 2006. Officially, reporting day was noon on Sunday, August 27th of that year.
LISTEN: Les McTavish chats about Vauxhall Academy in Episode 8 of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
2. What is the age range of the students you work with?
All athletes in the academy are in Grades 10 through 12. We also have some players on our practice squad as young as Grade 9.
3. What are the academic expectations at the academy?
Vauxhall Academy is built around expectations. Academics are a huge part of our success and something that we constantly look to improve at and hold each student athlete to a high standard. The school and baseball program work together very closely. The principal and vice principal at Vauxhall High School also serve as the president and vice president on the board of directors at the baseball academy.
Daily academic progress and accountability are important to continue to keep our school as one of the top academic high schools in Alberta. We expect each academy athlete to uphold a higher standard of work ethic than regular students at Vauxhall High School.
4. Tell us about your annual travel schedule, tournaments you participate in and big dates on your calendar.
The tournaments we attend include: the Best of the West in Kamloops, the Bishop Gorman Desert Classic in Las Vegas, the Missoula Mavericks event in Montana, the Haven Agencies tournament in Vauxhall, and the Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) tournament in Lethbridge.
There is also an annual game against the Lethbridge Bulls of the Western Canadian Baseball League (formerly the Western Major Baseball League). Other games versus other academy programs, travel teams, college programs and premier teams fill out the calendar.
And we partner with a couple of programs for players who are interested in the Arizona Fall Classic and the Martin Luther King (MLK) Classic. Over the last couple of years, we’ve had a few players join Team Rawlings Southeast in Atlanta, as well.
5. What amenities and facilities do you have to offer students?
The Vauxhall Jets indoor baseball training facility includes a 5,600 square foot indoor/outdoor carpeted area, two indoor pitching mounds, a 70-foot batting cage, sock nets, pitching machines, an agility and core strength development area, as well as an 800 square foot area for front toss and visual training.
Athletic therapy and massage equipment includes two full-size training tables, an ice maker, an ultrasound machine, an electrical stimulation machine, and portable training bags.
The 1,000 square foot weight room is home to stationary bikes, elliptical machines, a treadmill, a row machine, squat racks, etc.
The clubhouse and locker room features 24 professional-style stalls, a high quality sound system, an individual shoe storage area, and a 10-foot by 12-foot carpeted Vauxhall Academy logo.
Jets Stadium – which was built in the 1950s and renovated between 2006 and 2008 – is operated and maintained by Jets players, with the help of the Jets Stadium Society. The facility includes full-sized dugouts, a double bullpen, hitting stations, protective screens for defensive work, and a Musco sports lighting system.
The stadium, which has seating for 500 people, also has a press box, sound system, scoreboard and a concession area.
A $1.5-million student residence that opened in 2011 covers 10,000 square feet and houses laundry machines, a players’ lounge (complete with TVs and video gaming systems), a sports therapy room, a ping pong table, a pool table and offices.
6. What can you tell us about your coaches and support staff?
I am the head coach and director of operations in Vauxhall. I grew up playing baseball in Stettler and Slave Lake. Later on, I played at Prairie Baseball Academy and I was the first player to receive a scholarship out of PBA.
I pitched for Washington State University for four years and in the Saskatchewan Major Baseball League for the Oyen Pronghorns and the Lethbridge Bulls.
My coaching career began in 1998 with the Lethbridge American Legion AA Elks. A stint as the pitching coach for the PBA followed and I was the head coach and manager of the Lethbridge Bulls of the WMBL from 2002 to 2004.
I am certified as a level three coach through the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP). I’ve also served as a Canadian Junior National Team (JNT) coach on several occasions and I have been coaching in Vauxhall since the baseball academy opened its doors.
I am fortunate to have coached over 170 players who have moved on to play professional baseball or collegiate ball in Canada or the U.S. Of those, 18 were Major League Baseball (MLB) draft picks or they signed pro contracts.
The Vauxhall Academy coaching staff includes seven full-time and part-time coaches.
Assistant coach Jim Kotkas was born and raised in Lethbridge. He represented Canada as a player in the 1977 Little League World Series. During his collegiate playing career he won a national Junior College World Series with the College of Southern Idaho.
Jim has an impressive resume when it comes to playing internationally. He was on the 1981 JNT, he played in the Pan-American Games and he also represented Canada at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
He has been coaching in Vauxhall since 2006, where he serves as a hitting and outfield coach.
Assistant coach Joel Blake, meanwhile, attended PBA between 2006 and 2008 before playing four years for the Lethbridge Bulls in the WMBL.
Also on the coaching staff are strength and conditioning coach Jeff Krushell, who spent five years working in the Toronto Blue Jays organization; mental performance consultant Josh Hoetmer; and Medicine Hat Mavericks owner Greg Morrison, who works as a sports therapist.
Support staff include residence managers Jimmy and Lisa Vulcano, cook Anna Bueckert, and office administrator Lynda Unruh. A board of directors also supports operations.
7. What notable alumni have graduated from the academy and what have they accomplished since leaving Vauxhall?
We have a tonne of successful alumni that have been a part of Vauxhall Academy since 2006. Officially, 141 alumni have donned a Jets jersey. All 141 have went on to a post-secondary education in some area or another. We are proud to have alumni acting as teachers, doctors, college baseball coaches, lawyers, business owners, engineers, and so on throughout North America. Without our alumni’s support we certainly wouldn’t be the program we are today.
8. How much are tuition fees for students? Do you offer scholarships to help offset these costs?
Academy fees are $15,600 per year. Of that, $3,300 pays for administrative costs, such as office supplies and salaries. Another $5,000 covers housing, while $2,400 is put toward competition-related expenses, including entry fees, umpires, uniforms, equipment, accommodations and travel.
Specialized instruction in the areas of sports psychology, nutrition, and athletic therapy accounts for $2,400 of each student’s tuition and $1,500 pays for “other” costs, like advertising, marketing and recruitment.
On the scholarship front, Vauxhall Academy is reviewing its options in offering financial scholarships to recruit high-calibre athletes. Those scholarships will be announced as they are developed. Need-based assistance is also looked at on a case by case basis. In addition, the Province of Alberta offers several scholarships that students may be eligible to receive.
9. What defines success for a Vauxhall Academy graduate?
When you make the decision to become a Jet, you are making a sacrifice. I can’t define the sacrifices we all make, nor can I tell somebody who has never donned a Jets jersey what it is like to represent Vauxhall Academy.
I do know that the select few who have gone through the program have come away with a favourable impression. The Vauxhall Academy is a passion. Being a Jet is a passion. It is hard to define, but being a Jet is something special.
Vauxhall Academy principles include: loyalty, integrity, excellence, leadership, selfless service and respect. You can define each term as you wish, but we encourage our students to keep in mind that a better person makes a better player. Once a Jet, always a Jet.