By IAN WILSON
Rival fans of the Dawgs mercilessly taunted the team by debating whether they should be called “Choke-otoks” or “Oko-chokes” after another playoff exit at the hands of the Edmonton Prospects last year.
It’s a bit harsh for a team coming off of back-to-back 35-12 regular seasons, but first-round postseason losses to the Prospects three summers in a row will bring out that kind of heckling.
As frustrating as the playoff failures have been in recent years – it’s now been a decade since the Dawgs celebrated their last league title – Okotoks will once again be one of the best teams in the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL).
With excellent coaching, strong player recruitment, top-notch facilities, outstanding fan support and a great feeder system in Okotoks Dawgs Academy, the team is well positioned for success in 2019.
The key will be finding a way to translate what looks great on paper into a winning product on the field, especially when the games matter most.
Outfielder and first baseman Will Hollis is back for another campaign with the Dawgs after putting up stellar numbers in the WCBL in 2018. In 41 regular season games last summer, Hollis batted .361 with 31 runs batted in (RBI), seven stolen bases and 34 runs. He also produced in the playoffs, hitting .333 with three runs and three RBI over four contests. Since then, Hollis has turned in a strong year with the Texas State Bobcats, where he notched 37 runs, 47 RBI, six home runs and a .320 batting average over 52 games.
Joining Hollis is 2018 True Grit Award winner Richard Mascarenas (whose walkup song La Macarena will once again be heard at Seaman Stadium). The shortstop has endeared himself to Dawgs fans with a never-say-die attitude and great glove work in the field. At the plate, the Linn-Benton Community College sophomore contributed 33 runs, 17 RBI and 16 stolen bases while hitting at a .329 clip in 41 regular-season games last summer.
Jacob Bouzide is coming off a good year with the Alberta-heavy Colby Trojans, where he hit .333 with 15 stolen bases and 34 runs in 30 games. The second baseman and outfielder batted .421 in 19 at bats for the Dawgs last summer.
First baseman Riley Baasch returns following a successful year with Bellevue University. The right-handed slugger has turned in back-to-back seasons of double-digit home runs, 50-plus runs, 60 RBI, and an on-base percentage comfortably over .400 for the Bruins. His teammate, J.T. Patterson, is also on the Okotoks roster in 2019, but the Dawgs Academy graduate is expected to pursue opportunities in professional baseball after he put in a monster campaign that saw him belt 24 home runs and 90 RBI on his way to North Star Athletic Association (NSAA) Player of the Year honours.
On the mound, Nick Vickers got the ball for the team’s season-opening start against the Brooks Bombers. Coming off of Tommy John surgery, the Dawgs Academy alumnus went three innings in a no decision. Vickers pitched 9.1 innings for Okotoks in 2017, going 1-1 with 14 strikeouts.
Another Dawgs Academy product, Graham Brunner is back for a third season with the big club. The 6-foot-2 southpaw, who is attending school at Crowder College, started 11 games for the Dawgs in 2017 and 2018, posting a record of 6-1 with a tidy ERA of 3.12 in 60.2 innings. Brunner also struck out 46 batters in that time.
Dustin Schorie also enters his third season with the Dawgs in 2019. After appearing in five games for Okotoks in 2017, the Mesa Community College (MCC) pitcher played in 23 games last summer, including two playoff outings. His 20.1 frames of regular-season work produced a 2-1 record and a 3.98 ERA. With the MCC Thunderbirds this year, Schorie struck out 40 would-be hitters in 26 innings while going 2-0.
Starting pitcher and reliever Andrew Yates will be counted on for bullpen help once more. He struck out 23 batters in 14.2 innings for Okotoks in 2018. Yates also pitched well for Indiana University Southeast this season – in 40.1 innings, he punched out 36 batters, went 5-0, turned in two complete games and finished the year with a 3.35 ERA.
Meanwhile, getting the start for the 2019 home opener is University of British Columbia lefty Jared Spearing, who made eight appearances as a reliever for the Dawgs last year, recording a 3.85 ERA and 7 Ks in 9.1 innings.
NEW DAWGS WITH OLD TRICKS
Getting a lot of buzz on the roster is Eddy Tavarez Cabrera, a 6-foot-5 senior with Peru State College. In 67.1 innings this year, the product of the Dominican Republic struck out 118 batters and his fastball is said to reach upwards of 99 miles per hour. But the flamethrower is expected to be selected in the Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft, which takes place between June 3-5. If he is taken in the draft, it’s unlikely he would make his way to Okotoks.
With the memorable exit of fan-favourite Eddie Sanchez from the Dawgs last summer, baseball watchers at Seaman Stadium may look twice if they see another Sanchez at shortstop in 2019. That’s because Eddie’s younger brother Ricardo, who has come up through Dawgs Academy, is expected to suit up at some point for Okotoks in the middle infield.
More family ties can be found with University of British Columbia right-handed hurler Brendan Logan and catcher Gavin Logan, of Southeastern Community College. The two Dawgs Academy alums who are on the 2019 Okotoks roster are cousins.
Tristan Peters will look to bring some of the prowess he displayed at Chandler-Gilbert Community College this season to the Dawgs. The speedy outfielder cranked six long balls, stole 26 bases, scored 51 runs and batted .373 in 49 games for the Coyotes.
Richard Mascarenas will have a few familiar faces from Linn-Benton Community College with him at Seaman Stadium. Outfielder Jacob Melton – who hit .365 with 39 RBI, 39 runs and 16 swiped bases for the Roadrunners in 42 games – is joining the Dawgs. As is right-handed pitcher Dan Ferrario, who pitched 47.1 innings for Linn-Benton this school year, posting a 6-2 record, 56 Ks, and a 2.66 ERA. Catcher Jordan Mambaje is also running his .295 batting average up the road from Oregon to Okotoks.
Another Bellevue University basher joining the team is Kory Longaker. The speedy power threat had gaudy numbers for the Bruins. In 63 games he bashed 12 home runs, punched through 58 RBI, plated 82 runs, stole 19 bases and registered a batting average of .376.
Meanwhile, Bouzide is reuniting with his former Colby teammates Tyler McWillie and Bryce Libke. Both are right-handed pitchers, but McWillie can also swing the bat. All three players are Dawgs Academy grads.
No coach made a bigger splash in the league in 2018 than Mitch “Big Bear” Schmidt. The big bearded boss went viral following a game against the Prospects in Edmonton when he started chucking chairs on the field in protest of an umpiring decision. The controversial outburst landed him a suspension and the scorn of opposing coaches, but it was difficult to argue with the regular-season success the team experienced with Schmidt at the helm.
Schmidt, an associate coach with the Bellevue University Bruins, is back for his second season as head coach of the Dawgs. The Bruins put together a 48-16 record this season and earned a spot in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) World Series, where Bellevue’s 21st seeded program ended up finishing fifth overall.
Schmidt will look to bring some of that regular season and postseason success to Okotoks, where the club is desperate to shed their label of playoff chokers.
He will have plenty of help with the Dawgs, including pitching coach Joe Sergent, a former Florida Marlins draft pick who played as high as Double-A in their system before pitching for three years with the Calgary Vipers of the Golden League.
“We sat down last year after we got knocked out and we just knew something needed to change,” said Sergent of the team’s self-assessment and recruitment strategy following the 2018 season.
“This year we went after guys who could play hard for all nine innings of every game … we went after blue-collar guys but we also went after heart.”
David Robb, the hitting and bench coach, will also be leaned on heavily by Schmidt. Robb is a team Hall of Famer who has seen it all and been a part of all four of the Dawgs championships.
Infield and assistant coach Andy Peterson rounds out the coaching staff. The former Seattle Mariners draft pick played two seasons in their minor league system.
FIELD OF DREAMS
When on-field results are lacking in Okotoks, the Dawgs can always look to the stands at Seaman Stadium for encouragement.
The team’s ballpark is a mecca for baseball fans in Alberta, annually topping the WCBL attendance rankings by a significant margin.
In 2018, the Dawgs welcomed 80,877 fans to 22 regular-season home games, averaging 3,676 onlookers per contest. In the playoffs, another 6,534 people attended two home dates against the Edmonton Prospects.
Those figures were down from 2017, when 102,833 fans showed up to Seaman Stadium over 26 regular season and postseason outings, working out to an average attendance of 3,955 per game.
Despite the dip, the Dawgs finished third in North American summer collegiate crowd rankings last year, according to Ballpark Digest, which ranks teams by average attendance.
To help manage the turnout, the Dawgs added a new section of seating along the first-base side in the off-season. Section 111 will add over 100 seats to the ballpark and help alleviate congestion along the concourse. Plans have also been approved to build a new visitor clubhouse in the berm area. That project, which is expected to be completed in 2020, will include the addition of a left-field lounge for fans.
After starting their season on the road in Brooks with a 14-5 victory on May 28th, the Dawgs traveled to Edmonton for a matchup with the Prospects, only to see their May 30th tilt postponed due to air quality concerns.
Their home schedule opens at Seaman Stadium with a game against Edmonton on May 31st, and then they’ll round out their weekend with a pair of games against the Fort McMurray Giants on June 1st & 2nd.
The remainder of their 56-game regular season schedule can be viewed here.
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