1 Thru 9: Prairie Baseball Academy

One of the longest-tenured baseball schools in Alberta is in Lethbridge, where the Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) teaches student athletes about the sport and about life.

The team name at PBA is the Dawgs, but you’ll also find some bulls in the pack. That’s because several members of the coaching staff at the academy have played and coached for the Lethbridge Bulls of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL). And if you check the Bulls roster each summer, you’re sure to find some PBA players on the squad.

You can count Ryan MacDonald among those who have close ties to both the Bulls and the Dawgs. Now in his 10th year of coaching at PBA, the Nova Scotian played five years for the Bulls and coached the Lethbridge team to their first WCBL title in 2015.

MacDonald made some time for Alberta Dugout Stories so we could learn a bit more about PBA and the school’s approach to baseball tutelage. Here’s what he had to say for our latest “1 Thru 9” baseball academy profile:

1) What year was the academy established?

The Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) was established in the fall of 1995, with over 62 players aspiring to play college baseball. We didn’t have an indoor facility so we turned an old Coke warehouse into our indoor. We made the most of it, playing our games at Henderson Stadium, now Spitz Stadium, until the fall of 1999 when Lloyd Nolan Yard was finished.

2) What is the age range of the students you work with?

Athletes in the academy currently range from Grade 11 up through third-year college and university students. We allow local high school players the opportunity to practice and play on our junior varsity team in the spring.

3) What are the academic requirements at PBA?

To attend our program, a player must be considered a full-time student at either Lethbridge College or the University of Lethbridge. Students must maintain a 2.0 grade point average (GPA) in the fall semester in order to be eligible to participate on the varsity team in the spring.

4) Tell us about your travel schedule and calendar highlights?

This year we open in Salt Lake, Utah, followed by Henderson, Nevada at the Coyote Slugout from Feb. 15-17. Teams we face include the College of Southern Idaho (ranked as high as tenth in the U.S. in 2018); the College of Southern Nevada (ranked as high as second in the U.S. in 2018); and Salt Lake Community College.

The following two weekends we travel to Walla Walla, Washington (Walla Walla CC) and Pendleton, Oregon (Blue Mountain CC) to compete against two Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC) teams.

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Lloyd Nolan Yard in Lethbridge is the home field of the PBA Dawgs … photo courtesy Prairie Baseball Academy

Then on March 23rd and 24th we kick off our Canadian College Baseball Conference (CCBC) season in Kamloops against Thompson Rivers University (TRU) and continue league play each weekend until the championships in Kamloops from May 8th through the 12th.

5) What facilities do the students have access to through the PBA?

We currently have a 3,200 square foot indoor, full turf facility with two 70 foot long cages. Portable mounds are used for live bullpens, and pitching machines are available for hitters to get some extra work in.

We have two full locker rooms, one for junior varsity and one for varsity, which also doubles as our weight room. Our weight room consists of numerous weight machines along with benches, barbells and rubberized plates. The academy also has two full length clay mounds for winter bullpen sessions.

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Players get ready at the PBA indoor facility … photo courtesy Prairie Baseball Academy

The home of the academy is at Lloyd Nolan Yard, which is 328 feet down the lines and 405 feet to center. Lloyd Nolan Yard is one of the most beautiful fields in Canada. Also, during the fall and spring some of our games are played out of the newly-renovated Spitz Stadium during tournaments or evening play.

6) What can you tell us about your coaching staff?

Head coach Todd Hubka is heading into his 23rd year with the Prairie Baseball Academy. This will be Todd’s ninth as head coach of the varsity program. Since taking over in 2011, coach Hubka has gone seven for eight, capturing seven consecutive CCBC Championships from 2011 to 2017. He has compiled a record of 245-142 good for a .633 winning percentage.

Coach Hubka played his youth ball in Claresholm before moving on to the Fort Macleod Royals American Legion team in the 1980s. After playing in southern Alberta, Todd played college ball for the North Idaho Cardinals, where he was second team All-Conference. Todd brings knowledge to all aspects of the game and is constantly learning and refining his approach to the game. Players in the program have hit over .300 consistently over the past 23 years. Todd takes pride in the direction of the PBA and is excited by the talents and work ethic of the 2019 academy teams.

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Coach Ryan MacDonald watches from third base at Spitz Stadium in 2018 … photo by Ian Wilson

I am in my tenth year coaching with the PBA. I was born and raised in Kennetcook, Nova Scotia and played for Team Nova Scotia at the Canada Cup in 2002 and 2003. I also represented Team Nova Scotia at the 2005 Canada Games in Regina. I came to PBA in 2004 where I played for three years before moving on to the University of Texas-Brownsville, where I was named to the 2008 All-Conference team. I also played for the Lethbridge Bulls for five seasons and I was the head coach of the Bulls from 2014 to 2016. During that time, the team had the best record in the league for two consecutive seasons, and in 2015 the Bulls captured their first ever WCBL championship, going a perfect 9-0 in the playoffs.

Junior varsity head coach Jesse Sawyer is in his sixth year of coaching with the academy. He grew up in Calgary and was lucky enough to play in the Little League World Series in 2001, representing Team Canada. Jesse attended the Prairie Baseball Academy from 2006 to 2008 and was a member of the 2008 CCBC championship team. He went on to play NCAA Division 1 baseball at South Dakota State University (SDSU) where he set the single-season home run record with 19 and career home run record with 50.

Coach Sawyer received his education degree from SDSU in 2011 before returning to Lethbridge to start his coaching career. Along with his experience with the PBA, Sawyer played and coached for the Bulls of the WCBL. He won a league MVP award in 2011 when he set the single-season home run record at 18.

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Coach Jesse Sawyer (middle) with the Lethbridge Bulls following a game in Medicine Hat in 2018 … photo by Ian Wilson

Assistant junior varsity coach Chance Wheatley is entering his second year of coaching with the program. He comes from Bawlf, Alberta and played his youth baseball with the Spruce Grove White Sox. In 2011, he represented Team Alberta at the Canada Cup in Moncton, New Brunswick. Chance played his high school baseball with St. Francis Xavier Baseball Academy before coming to the PBA in 2013. Coach Wheatley was an infielder on the 2015 and 2016 championship teams and was named second team All-Conference in 2016. He spent his summers in 2016 and 2017 playing in the WCBL for the Yorkton Cardinals. Chance graduated in 2017 from Lethbridge College with a business administration diploma.

Pitching coach Justin Logan is in his first year of coaching with the program. Justin comes from Oyen, where he attended Badlands Academy before enrolling at Prairie Baseball Academy in 2015. Logan played three seasons at the academy from 2015 to 2017, and he was an integral piece in the bullpen for consecutive CCBC championships. Justin also played for the Medicine Hat Mavericks of the WCBL in 2015 and 2016.

7) Tell us about the alumni who have come through the PBA.

We have over 650 alumni that have gone through our program over the last 24 years and many have moved on to professional baseball and universities across North America. To date, the academy has sent 152 players on to a four-year school, and has had 33 players drafted or signed into professional baseball. On July 4, 2016 Dustin Molleken became the first PBA player to make his MLB debut for the Detroit Tigers.

We take pride in moving our kids on to post-secondary schools across the continent and it is our goal each year to give graduating players an opportunity to continue their baseball careers. We also have many alumni who have been very successful in other careers, including teachers, police officers, physicians, college and high school baseball coaches, fishermen, photographers, and recording artists. Our alumni continue to lead nationwide and give back to our program and the communities in which they live.

8) What are tuition costs like at PBA and what kind of scholarships are available to the players?

Fall fees are $3,200. If a player receives a 2.0 GPA in the fall semester and is placed on a PBA team, their spring baseball fees will be covered in the form of a scholarship bursary.

University of Lethbridge fees, based on a typical course load for an undergrad student, generally cost around $7,300. That includes university tuition, health and dental coverage, as well as books and school supplies. Meanwhile, Lethbridge College costs are between $5,000 and $6,000, depending on the program.

Housing costs also vary, but there are several options both on campus and off campus.

9) What do you think defines success for someone who has attended Prairie Baseball Academy?

We feel success at PBA has a lot of different avenues. Academics have to come first. That is the number one reason they are here. That is why you are referred to as a student athlete not athlete student.

Freshmen, for the most part, don’t understand the importance of time management. Throughout the school year, PBA players spend 15 to 25 hours per week at the field. When you add in nine to 15 hours of classroom time per week you can see you have to be very dedicated in both. When we are out recruiting we always tell recruits that academics and baseball have to become your focus. You will have time to socialize, but understand that you need to manage your time wisely.

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PBA players tend to the field at Spitz Stadium in between games against the Vauxhall Jets in the fall of 2018 … photo by Ian Wilson

We take great pride in moving our players on from PBA, but we take just as much pride when our players become successful in life. We believe PBA is a great building block for our young athletes to become successful in every aspect of their life. It is easy to show success when our kids move on, but true success shows years later when they become great employees, husbands, fathers, and volunteers in their communities they call home.

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