By IAN WILSON
Weather-tested and tough – that’s what makes Alberta baseball players such attractive recruits south of the border. And no American school added more of them for the 2019 season than the Colby Community College Trojans.
Nearly half of the Trojans’ 30-man roster includes players who are originally from Alberta or those who trained here.
It’s a team where Okotoks Dawgs and Vauxhall Jets quickly shed their rivalries, and an Edmonton Prospect slugger needs to have a short memory about losing in the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) playoffs to the Medicine Hat Mavericks last summer.
Fortunately for the Kansas-based squad, it appears any competitive differences that may have taken hold in Alberta, have remained in the province. Through 48 games, the Trojans sport a 30-18 record and are 16-12 in Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference (KJCCC) play.
Head coach Ryan Carter said the appeal of Alberta players dates back to 2004, when Matt Dickson served as his assistant coach. A few years later, Michael Hunt joined the coaching staff.
“Both are Edmonton natives and they both opened a lot of doors in the country, especially in Alberta,” said Carter.
“Although both of them have moved on to other things, those connections have remained, if not grown stronger. Those relationships are very important in being able to identify the right kind of person we want here. I think that we have become a comfortable transition for a lot of players from Alberta.”
GRIT AND HUSTLE
That “right kind of person” Carter refers to has grit and hustle that he’s witnessed in players from Canada.
“One of the things that we expect from our Canadian players is a level of toughness that helps them adapt to the weather in the Midwest,” said the skipper.
“This is a source of pride for us knowing that we are getting young men that are eager to learn, work and really are enjoyable to be around.”
Carter added the intangibles Albertans possess off the field can also be seen when the Trojans settle in for the first pitch of each game.
“We count on our Canadian players to be huge impacts for us. Our crew from Alberta is very talented and they all have pretty important roles for us,” said Carter, adding two Alberta players have already committed to Colby for next season.
Matt Coutney is among the impact players Carter is talking about.
The Wetaskiwin-born former Edmonton Prospect infielder has 47 runs batted in (RBI), 46 runs, 10 home runs and a .396 batting average through 47 games.
SOMEBODY TO LEAN ON
“With being a sophomore this season I feel that I understand the game a bit better,” said the left-handed hitter.
“I felt that I had to lean on some sophomores last year and this year I am hoping to do the same for some freshman.”
Of course, those freshman include some familiar faces, like Dawgs Academy grads Tucker Zdunich and Tyler McWillie, as well as Vauxhall Academy alumnus Owen Harms.
“Growing up in Alberta, you get to know a lot of guys,” said Coutney. “Before coming down to Colby I either knew them or knew about them.”
Zdunich, who has contributed to the Trojan offence with five home runs and 27 RBI through 42 contests, heard about Colby when he was in high school at Okotoks.
“I’ve known for a couple years now that Colby has had lots of success every year, so I wanted to come here to help me get to the next level,” said Zdunich, who hails from High River.
“Lots of great players from the Dawgs in the past have gone to Colby and have had lots of success here, such as the Kirkwood brothers (Drake and Garrett), and (Univeristy of Pittsburgh catcher) Cole MacLaren.”
Regarding the dugout dynamic of throwing together players from across the province from competing programs, Zdunich said the old rivalries are not forgotten but they are set aside in Kansas.
“It’s easy to get along with them all,” said the outfielder, who played against Coutney back home. “Our guys from Alberta have a big impact on our team success.”
McWillie, meanwhile, has been a factor at the plate and on the mound in the KJCCC. The Waltrous, Saskatchewan first baseman has six dingers and 24 RBI in just 79 at bats, while his pitching resume includes a 2-3 record and 36 strikeouts over 33 innings.
He also has a number of players he can look to for advice, including Coutney and former Dawgs Academy infielder Jacob Bouzide, who can lend a hand in the batting cages, or any number of pitchers from back home.
There are fellow Dawgs Academy alumni Ryan Olchoway (14 strikeouts and a 4.91 ERA through 11 innings), Shaun Atamanchuk (2-0 with 19 Ks in 24.2 frames), Ethan Francis (32 punch outs over 27.1 innings, along with one win and one save), and Andrew Asselin, a Winnipeg native with a save and three starts under his belt.
Or McWillie can hit up Blake Gallagher, a Vauxhall Academy recruit who understands the dual roles of pitching and picking up a bat on a regular basis. During his 20.1 innings on the mound, Gallagher is 0-2 but he has three saves and 29 Ks. At the dish, the infielder is batting a robust .326, with seven homers, 31 RBI and 36 runs in 46 games.
The familiar faces don’t end there. Praire Baseball Academy (PBA) product Kyle Bloor has recorded 19 strikeouts in 23.2 innings out of the bullpen, while left-hander Ryan Morgan (Dawgs Academy) is also around as a redshirt.
In a unique position among the Albertans is Medicine Hat pitcher Nathan Stark, who didn’t attend any of the high-profile academies in the province.
The right-hander’s coach at McCoy High School, Paul Schlosser, got in touch with Carter when Stark was in Grade 12.
“Coach Carter then got in touch with me and told me to send him a video of me throwing. He liked what he saw from me and told me he had a spot for me,” recalled Stark, who has a record of 5-3 over eight starts for the Trojans.
“I really didn’t have any offers from other schools … so I didn’t really hesitate and I just signed right away,” said the 6-foot-2 hurler.
“I didn’t have the luxury of the kids who went to an academy, who had all these coaches with connections talking to schools for them or having these coaches come down and visit an academy to come take a look at them. I did a lot of my own recruiting, but I didn’t really know for sure what I was doing, so I was just happy and grateful that I had a coach like Schlosser to help me through it and find a school.”
Added Stark: “Another thing that prompted me to pick Colby was not taking their interest in me for granted, because I wasn’t sure if another school was going to be interested in me like they were.”
Stark doesn’t have the academy connections many of his Canadian teammates do, but he did develop some rivalries last summer in the WCBL as a member of the Medicine Hat Mavericks.
“I think the team dynamic is good. It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, but I think overall we get along good and we enjoy spending time with each other and enjoy each other’s company. There isn’t really much in the way of rivalries amongst the team now that we are all on the same team playing with each other,” said the sophomore, who has a 3.96 ERA and 45 Ks in 38.2 innings pitched.
“We kind of just joke around and chirp each other about our previous teams and tell stories about them. I think with most of us playing in the WCBL, that has made us closer because we all know how crazy of a summer it is playing in that league, and all we do is just tell crazy stories about it.”
When he was asked if he made any comments to former WCBL opponents who are current teammates about the Mavs winning a 2018 league championship, Stark said:
“Not really. It’s kind of the other way around. They kind of chirp me and kind of make fun of me and say that they feel so honoured being able to be on the same team with someone who won the championship. I guess in the beginning, I kind of poked fun a little bit, but no I don’t really chirp about it. There’s no hard feelings about it, it’s just baseball.”
Stark also has a trusted ally in his corner. His brother Zach is a catcher and infielder who is red-shirting with the Trojans.
“It’s awesome having him around,” said the elder Stark.
“I try to always be a good role model for him and set a good example, because he looks up to me so much. So, I think that has helped push me everyday in practice and in the weight room to be the best I can because I know he is watching and I want to set a good example for him. It’s awesome having him around and I was really glad he decided to come down to Colby.”
Coach Carter is also glad to have the Starks in Colby, along with all of his Trojan horses from Alberta.