By JOE McFARLAND
It’s not easy to pack up your bags and move somewhere, especially when you’re in high school.
But when you’re chasing sports dreams, many young athletes will do anything it takes to make it to the next level, including leaving everything you know behind.
Alberta has become a hotbed for prairie baseball hopefuls to make a name for themselves. The reputations carried by the academies in this province are second-to-none, so it’s not surprising to see players from across the country move at young ages to get the best training available.
One of those players is Stonewall, Manitoba’s Ryan Humeniuk. He graduated from Dawgs Academy in 2016 and moved on to Indian Hills Community College. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder is now patrolling the outfield for the University of Louisiana Monroe.
As part of Episode 24 of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast, we chatted with Humeniuk and Vauxhall Baseball Academy product Josh Burgmann about their respective travels through Alberta on their way to collegiate baseball in the U.S. Here is the transcript of that conversation.
Q: Take us to the very beginning in your baseball career. When did you decide that this is the sport that you want to play for the rest of your life?
A: It started pretty young for me. I had a lot of friends playing hockey growing up and I played hockey as well. I’d say around the age of 13 or 14, I started playing baseball throughout the winter, working out in the indoor facility called “Rookies.” Now it’s called The Home Run Sports Training Centre and they were kind of like the initial introduction for baseball year-round to me. At that point, I kind of got to the point where it is so much baseball and so much hockey, I kind of had to choose one.
I had a lot of friends playing hockey and I just want to do something a little different. That’s when baseball kind of became my main priority. Ever since then, it has been probably the best decision I have ever made in my life.
Q: Tell us a little bit about Stonewall, Manitoba for those who have no idea where that might even be on a map.
A: Stonewall is a little town about 5,000 people. It’s a little north of Winnipeg, about 45 minutes. You know, it’s a small town, small high school. My high school had about 400 kids and there’s only about 90 to 100 kids in the average graduating class. You know, it’s just a small town atmosphere. Everybody knows everybody and it’s a cool place to grow up at the same time. It’s cool to live in some other places now and see how their high schools are different for everyone else.
Q: So how is it that a kid from Stonewall ends up in Okotoks of all places?
A: That’s a long story. Basically what happened, I was kind of trying to get recruited to some colleges in … my grade 11 year. I had talked to a couple of colleges that summer playing with the 16U provincial team in Manitoba. I was looking at some different places like Vauxhall Baseball Academy, I was looking at Langley, B.C. It was honestly exam time and I sent some video to coach Tyler Hollick, who was the recruiting guy at the time and Allen Cox. Talked to them a little bit on the phone, texted and emails with them and they said to come check it out. And honestly, I was pretty in love with it. I hit with Cox for a couple hours that day and I just fell in love with it right away. I knew it was somewhere I wanted to be if they wanted to have me and they did. It was a lot of fun, that’s for sure.
Q: Talk a little bit about your experience as you moved out to a brand new province here. Talk us through whether you experienced any kind of culture shock or was it a pretty easy transition? And what did you think of Dawgs Academy once you actually got here?
A: Oh it was. The transition was really smooth in the sense that I was really accepted by the community. They do a great job in just bringing guys in and the community supports the Dawgs so well and I’m so grateful for that. That was such an awesome experience in that sense. I’d say probably the hardest part for me was just going to a new high school my senior year. You know all my friends I’d grown up playing with and being around for 9, 10, 11 years of my life and they weren’t there anymore. I had to rebuild those friendships with new people and stuff like that. But at the same time, it was a great opportunity to do that and make new friends and create new relationships with people. From that sense, it was really awesome. I really, really enjoyed it.
Okotoks is such a cool city with such a cool atmosphere. The support with the Dawgs is second-to-none. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It’s so cool that such a small town in Canada, which is predominantly like a hockey-based country I want to say, that they have such support for a baseball program. I think that’s so unique and so special. I think the Dawgs do a great job of continuing to build that relationship too, year in and year out.
Q: What kinds of things did you learn from the Dawgs that you’ve been able to utilize throughout the course of your post-secondary career, both at Indian Hills and now with the Warhawks?
A: I’d say the biggest thing that I learned was a continued work ethic. That was something that I was raised to work hard at whatever I’m doing but at the same time, they showed me how to work and not just work blindly, but work and be focused on tasks.
There was never a day where we would just go hit. You’re hitting with a purpose, you’re working on something every single day. You don’t just go and do something, you do it with purpose. You bump for a hit, you work on your skill set every day, you work hard in the weight room because that’s important. You take care of the class because that’s important. They really taught me what it really means to be a college baseball player.
You know, I was at that stage where I was growing up a little bit, too. So I think that was a good time in my life to learn those skills and stuff like that. I’m grateful for the way they kind of raised me up over there.
Q: When you look back on your time in Okotoks, any moments that made you go “whoa” or anything that stands out in your mind as maybe being a bit of a surprise or maybe that one moment where you realized baseball could become a reality?
A: I think the first time I got to see the college team play. That was it for me. Just seeing the crowd that it brought out and to know that it’s a summer baseball league and just the support that they had for it. It wasn’t even just the Dawgs themselves. They just love baseball and it’s just like that passion and stuff like that which was so cool to me. I thought that was something that would be really unique to have for myself one day.
I got the opportunity to play for the Dawgs the past two years now and I’m grateful for that. That was a great opportunity and great experience. We’ll work out something hopefully to be able to come back again this summer. But yeah, that was definitely a turning point for me was seeing that stadium full of people and just the crowd going nuts and stuff like that. Seeing Canada Day for the first time with all those fans in the stands and you know watching Kellen Marruffo hit a homerun over the right field wall and watching everybody go absolutely nuts and stuff like that. Those were cool experiences, for sure.
Q: Looking now to your post-secondary career, what’s led to your success to this point? How would you describe how things have gone thus far?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s one thing in particular, but I just try to stay focused and work hard and just trust that when you work hard and you put in the time that good things will come for you. I have been fortunate to have great coaches the whole way along. Even from Home Run to Okotoks to Indian Hills to here with Coach (Michael) Federico, Coach (Matt) Collins, Coach (Jake) Carlson and Coach (Brandon) Belanger. You know, it’s just a great staff. They care about you as a person and not just as a player. I have to give a lot of credit to those guys. They’ve helped me a lot along the way. It’s just been a lot of things that have come together at the right time. I’m just really grateful for that.
Q: Talk a little about your stolen bases and what’s led you to kind of go down that path and try to be one of the leaders on that front?
A: Working with Coach Hollick and Coach Tyler Graham and Coach Andy Peterson and now here working with Coach Carlson. I just worked a lot on using that as a weapon for me – my speed and being able to run. If I just stand still, it doesn’t do a lot of good for me if I have the speed then I might as well use it, kind of thing. Working with them in learning how to get a better jump, a better first step, you know. Understanding what counts to run in. When am I going to get a breaking ball as a pitch that’s going to give me a chance to be safe maybe if a guy puts it to the plate? Recognizing slide steps, recognizing when a catcher doesn’t have great footwork, great arm, a slow transfer. Looking for little things. Maybe a pitcher tipping when they throw a breaking ball, those kinds of things to help give me an advantage on the base path.
At second base, I’m looking for a timing, maybe a pattern of one look or two looks, that gives me a chance to get a jump and maybe steal third. Working hard on being aggressive and making them worry about you, stuff like that. It’s been a lot of things that have come along. Just time, getting older and getting more experience and understanding that there are better counts for me to run in and to put your trust in it and give it a shot.
Q: It sounds like you quite enjoy sort of the mental battle that you play each and every game, whether it’s at the plate or on the base paths. It’s a chess match that you seem to be thriving on.
A: Yeah, absolutely. Baseball is a very mental game. Sometimes, I find myself talking myself down because I’m thinking too much whether it be at the plate or whatever. Over the span of however many years I’ve been playing baseball, I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge and sometimes I just need to put that aside and just think “swing hard” in case you hit it or just run fast and simplify the game a little. Sometimes you gotta just slow the game down.
Q: When you look back on your baseball life or even just life in general, who inspires you?
A: Oh man, that’s a tough question. Dad’s been there since day one. Just throwing countless hours of batting practice and putting in the time with me. He’s been so special and so helpful. There’s no way I could do without him. Mom traveling across the country to continents to see me play and support me in all my endeavours. You know all the coaches at Home Run Sports, just helping me along the way. Any time I need work in the off season, any time I need to work when I’m home for Christmas. Getting into the indoor and just working with me on little things, if I have questions, you know, just supporting me and that whole program. Even then watching me on Opening Night this year at LSU. Having their program be able to take a break and check me out, that was just so cool and such a special moment for me as a player, knowing that I came through that academy and that things are kind of coming full circle in that sense. You know, that’s super special to me. All the coaches at the Dawgs – Coach Heldobbler, Coach Hollick, Coach Cox. All of them. Just everybody there. Coach Lupo and Duda. Just everybody who’s been a part of being able to help me move on and get to a junior college. Even the guys at Baseball Manitoba helping me out a tonne. You know, getting me exposed to Indian Hills for the first time at 16U and then having Coach Duda make some calls for me and help me out there, it’s just been such a special ride.
Jordan Camp at Indian Hills, Steven Clark, Cam Walker. Those guys impacted on my life a lot in the last couple of years, both on and off the field as a young man and as a baseball player. I learned a lot at junior college and that was really, really important for me to go through that stage. I think, looking back on it, that was some of the toughest and some of the best years of my life were going through junior college. That’s special and you know the guys here every day. You just learn something new about being a young man and how to be a better baseball player. Coach Fed prides himself on raising not just not just a good baseball player but also a good young man, a good husband, a good father. There have been a lot of people along the way. It can’t be singled down to the one.
Q: When you talked a little bit about your journey so far but I’m curious about how you will be defining success by the end of this year? What do you hope to accomplish by the end of 2019?
A: Honestly for me, to see this team go to a regional. That would be outstanding. That would be the coolest thing for me if we could get to a regional this year. Obviously, we need to make the conference tournament and win that first. But I truly believe that’s something we can do. I know we had a rocky start but seeing the way the team came together this weekend, I think there’s even more left in there. So, I think we have a good chance to make a run at a conference championship and then hopefully a regional from there. That would be so special I think for me and for this program.