Let the Big Dawg Eat

By IAN WILSON

“You win it.”

Visitors to Seaman Stadium may have become familiar with this phrase over the last two summers. Those seated close enough to the home dugout could hear Mitch Schmidt, the head coach of the Okotoks Dawgs, bark this motto to his charges dozens of times each game.

The spirited slogan was often used as encouragement to achieve a seemingly small task – you win an at bat, you win by stealing a bag on the base paths, you win by getting a bunt down, you win by inducing a ground ball, you win by punching through a third strike, you win by making a routine defensive play in the field.

“You win it.”

Schmidt – who goes by the nickname “Big Bear” – may need to find a new catchphrase when he returns to Okotoks in 2020. And while “you won it” doesn’t have the same ring to it, that is now a statement of fact.

After piling up all those little victories over the course of the 2019 Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) season, the Dawgs claimed the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy with an 8-6 victory over the Regina Red Sox on Aug. 16th and will enter next year as the defending champions.

It’s the team’s first league title since they completed a three-peat in 2009, back when it looked like the Dawgs wouldn’t go very long between championships. A decade later, and after being branded “Okochokes” by critics as a result of their recent postseason failures, the Dawgs are hoping to enter a new era of trophy inscriptions.

BEST IN THE WEST

The regular season foretold of a team that was capable of realizing its lofty aspirations. A 40-15 record was more than good enough to finish atop the Western Division, well clear of the second-place Lethbridge Bulls, who finished with 31 wins and 25 losses.

At the plate, Okotoks racked up more runs (409), hits (594) and total bases (874) than any other squad in the WCBL. The Dawgs also registered the best collective on-base percentage (.392), batting average (.305) and slugging percentage (.449) in the league.

Tristan Peters paced the offence with his league-leading .396 batting average, 52 runs, 12 long balls, 44 runs batted in (RBI) and 13 stolen bases in 52 games, while starting pitcher Nolan Ruff went a perfect 7-0, with a 3.14 earned run average (ERA), 65 strikeouts, and just six walks during 57.1 innings and nine starts for Okotoks.

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Tristan Peters, seen here batting against the Prospects during the 2019 regular season, was consistent all summer for the Dawgs … photo by Ian Wilson

On the bump, Dawgs pitchers allowed the fewest walks (184) of any team, while their totals in the categories of hits allowed (460); wild pitches (49); strikeouts (513); saves (12); home runs against (16); walks and hits per inning pitched, or WHIP (1.31); opposing batting average (.242); and ERA (3.66) were superior to any club in the Western Division.

When Dawgs players hit the diamond, meanwhile, they were responsible for the second-best fielding percentage (.969) and the second-fewest errors (60) in the WCBL.

These kind of team performances are not new – Okotoks qualifies for the postseason on an annual basis.

Like other teams in the league, their playoff roster can often look quite different from their season-opening lineup. This summer, however, a lot of the players who made the opening day road trip to Brooks on May 28th were around to hoist the trophy in August.

EARLY DEPARTURES

Some notable exceptions who made major contributions in the regular season were third baseman Brett Esau, who clubbed five homers, scored 27 runs and produced 25 RBI for Okotoks in his 45 games of action, as well as infielder Riley Baasch, who hit .316 with 26 RBI and 20 runs in 30 games for the Dawgs. Unfortunately in Baasch’s case, he was hit by some foul-tipped balls off the mask when he was catching and a deflected baseball also caught him in the face in the batting cages, resulting in a concussion. The injury sent the native of Grand Island, Nebraska on the road to recovery and back to Bellevue University (BU), where he hopes to play his final season for the Bruins while completing his master’s degree in finance.

“It’s tough luck … it’s tough to go through all that in a summer, but I’m hoping to get healthy and finish off on a high note,” said Baasch, who also played in Okotoks in 2018.

“It was a fun summer besides the injuries, and what a special way for the team to finish it off.”

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Riley Baasch, left, chats with Dawgs head coach Mitch Schmidt in 2018 … photo by Ian Wilson

First baseman Jaxon Valcke (36 RBI, 31 runs, .352 batting average in 48 regular season games) played all three games against the Prospects in the opening playoff series, contributing three runs, but he returned early to the University of British Columbia (UBC), along with fellow Dawgs pitchers Jared Spearing (3-2, 3.80 ERA, 31 Ks in 45 innings) and Brendan Logan (2-1, 4.29 ERA, 16 Ks in 29.1 innings).

Pitchers Billy Brand (4-0, 2.13 ERA, two saves, 36 Ks in 38 innings); Dustin Schorie (eight saves, 0.94 ERA in 18 regular-season appearances); and local product Graham Brunner (3-1, 4.73 ERA, 41 strikeouts in 32.1 frames) were also not around for the final out and the title celebration at Seaman Stadium, despite their valued efforts over the summer.

LATE ARRIVALS

While some players had to hit the road early, before the party started, others arrived later in the season and helped ensure there was a reason to celebrate.

Calgarian J.T. Patterson put together a magical senior season at Bellevue, where he belted 24 long balls, put up 91 RBI, and posted a .367 batting average in 64 games. Patterson was named a 2019 first team All American by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the North Star Athletic Association (NSAA) Player of the Year. His power-hitting exploits helped lead the Bruins to a berth in the NAIA World Series.

A graduate of the Dawgs Academy and a member of the 2017 and 2018 Okotoks summer teams, Patterson had plenty of familiar faces waiting for him at Seaman Stadium, including former coaches, teammates, friends and family from southern Alberta, as well as Bruins colleagues – Schmidt, Baasch, outfielder Kory Langaker, and pitcher Brandon Desjardins – who traveled north to compete in the WCBL.

Slightly hobbled from his NAIA season, the left-handed hitting infielder didn’t join the Dawgs until late June and he was not an everyday player when he suited up.

“I had a strained hamstring, so after the school season I took some time away to recover my leg,” said Patterson, who was also named to the NSAA Gold Glove team while playing for the Bruins.

“When I got back to Okotoks I was just starting to regain all my strength in it and I was able to start running again. For the most part, I was healthy with the Dawgs.”

SCARY INJURY

Another Dawgs Academy alumnus who extended his senior season by taking the field in Okotoks was Dane Toftland, who suffered an injury at Indiana State University that he feared might end his playing career, if not change his life entirely.

“I had an orbital fracture of my eye from doing a bunting drill, so I didn’t play for a while,” Toftland told Alberta Dugout Stories.

“A lot of stuff went through my head when it first happened. I couldn’t open my eye for, I think, a day and a half and the first thing I was thinking was, ‘Am I going to be able to see again?’ That was the initial thought. It was scary. I was blessed to be able to see. I took it directly square in the eye. I’m just taking every day from there. It’s borrowed time for baseball, really.”

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Dane Toftland ponders an at bat at Seaman Stadium … photo by Ian Wilson

Undeterred, the outfielder worked his way back into the Sycamores lineup and played 29 games for Indiana State before joining the Dawgs two weeks into the season.

“This place means a lot to me. It always has. I love everybody here and I love the fans,” said the Grande Prairie product, who contributed three RBI, seven runs and a homer in eight WCBL playoff games.

“I just didn’t want to be done playing baseball, so I just came back here … I’m going to keep playing until someone takes the jersey off my back.”

GETTING PAST EDMONTON

The Dawgs clinched top spot in the Western Division in late July, well before their last regular-season contest against Medicine Hat on Aug. 7th. The only suspense for Okotoks during those final games before the postseason was determining who their opening playoff opponent would be: the Edmonton Prospects or Fort McMurray Giants.

When the Prospects edged out the Giants, it meant the Dawgs would square off against a club that had eliminated them from playoff contention three straight years. It was those consecutive opening series losses that invited the chants of “Okochokes” from opposing hecklers.

Eager to move past the Prospects, both mentally and physically, the Dawgs came out firing in Game 1 of their best-of-three series. A balanced offence that erupted for five runs in the eighth inning and strong pitching performances from Ruff and Desjardins powered Okotoks to a 7-2 victory.

The second game at RE/MAX Field in Edmonton was a marathon. The Prospects mustered two runs – one earned – against starting pitcher Justin Hammergren by the sixth inning before the Dawgs tied things up in the eighth. When Okotoks struck for a pair of runs in the top of the 10th inning, it looked like they may have finally solved their postseason nemesis. But a pair of hit batters, followed by a double steal, set the table for an Edmonton comeback, which was capped off by a bases-loaded single from Tyler Maskill that sealed a 5-4 win. Hunter Boyd, the only pitcher for the Prospects that night, threw 143 pitches over 10 innings and struck out 10 batters.

“It was a fun game to be a part of. I talk to (Hunter) here and there and I let him know he threw a great game, because he did. He threw a great game,” recalled Hammergren, of Tucson, Arizona.

“It was a pretty cool thing to watch. Knowing him, I knew he was going for the long haul. He was going for it.”

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Justin Hammergren delivers against the Bulls during the WCBL playoffs … photo by Ian Wilson

With a decisive Game 3 in Okotoks, the Dawgs turned to starting pitcher Tanner Simpson, who delivered a masterful complete-game shutout in a 5-0 triumph. The righthander, who attended Lewis-Clarke State College with Hammergren, punched out 11 Edmonton batters while yielding just six hits and one walk. More importantly, he punched a ticket to the second round of the playoffs.

“I always maintained that, yes it’s disappointing when you don’t win and you lose in the playoffs, but this idea of ‘Okochokes’ and the monkey off our back, I never believed in it and I told the players that,” said Dawgs bench coach Dave Robb.

TAKE ME TO THE ‘BRIDGE

With the curse – real or imagined – behind them, the Dawgs set their sights on the Lethbridge Bulls, who defeated the defending WCBL champion Medicine Hat Mavericks in three games.

Okotoks edged the Bulls 6-5 in the series opener, thanks in large part to outfielder Jacob Melton’s 4-for-5 night at the plate, which allowed him to drive in two runs and cross the plate twice. Pitcher Galen Manhard also had a solid game, working 7.1 innings and striking out 11 batters. The southpaw from Carmel Valley, California gave up four runs, but only two of them were earned. Desjardins, meanwhile, picked up his second playoff win out of the bullpen.

Game 2 provided more adversity for the Dawgs, as starting pitcher Nick Vickers struggled. In just 2.2 innings, the Dawgs Academy grad surrendered eight free passes and five earned runs before giving way to high schooler Matt Wilkinson, who allowed just two hits and zero runs in 5.1 innings of relief. By that point, however, the damage had been done and Okotoks fell by a 5-1 score.

Facing a winner-take-all game in their second straight series, the Dawgs switched up their pitching strategy at Seaman Stadium, making relief pitcher Desjardins the starter. In his longest outing of the summer, the righty – who collected a win, two saves, 14 Ks and 1.92 ERA during 14 regular season innings – responded with four strikeouts over five innings, while giving up three runs, only two of which were earned.

Desjardins was matched by Bulls pitcher Ben Erwin, of Spruce Grove, who racked up eight strikeouts but allowed three runs in his five frames. Heading to the bottom of the sixth inning, the teams were tied when Patterson singled and advanced to second base on a Chase Florendine wild pitch. Peters followed with a hit that plated Patterson. In his only relief appearance of the WCBL season, that was all the help that Hammergren needed. He allowed a pair of hits and no walks during four innings as the Dawgs held on for a 4-3 win.

“I’m happy to continue playing baseball, honestly. That’s all I really want to do … I try to take it in every day, because today could be my last game. I just do whatever I can to leave it all out there,” said Hammergren, a senior, following the series win over Lethbridge.

“To be able to do this for the fans and the whole city is kind of awesome, because I know we had this stigma of not being able to make it out of the first round. I learned that one quick, but after that I think we’ve just been rolling and it’s been great. You can feel it around the stadium. When we come to the game, the buzz is pretty high.”

YOU WIN IT

The West was won, but the Dawgs still had work to do.

For the second straight season, the Regina Red Sox won the right to represent the Eastern Division – and Saskatchewan – in the WCBL championship series.

Okotoks began the finals on the road and sent Ruff to the bump to open the game at Currie Field. The Regis University righthander was not content to just start the game, so he finished it, too. During the 7-2 win for the Dawgs, Ruff threw a complete game and struck out five batters. Although he allowed seven hits, no bases on balls were issued. The batting lineup for Okotoks supported Ruff’s taming efforts with steady run production, including a pair of RBI each from designated hitter Will Hollis and catcher Gavin Logan.

“I try to act like it’s just another game we’ve got to win,” said Ruff, who was planning to work as a relief pitcher for the Dawgs until he got the go-ahead from the Regis University coaching staff to stretch his innings out as a starter.

“I’m kind of oblivious to a lot of things when I’m on the mound. Someone would ask me what the last pitch I threw was and I have no idea. I’m more focused on the current pitch and the pitch after that. There could be ten fans or there could be ten thousand and I’d probably treat it the same.”

The eight-hour bus ride back to Alberta didn’t seem quite so long after the win, but the Dawgs still needed one more victory to seal the deal.

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

A chilly evening along the Sheep River didn’t keep the fans away from Seaman Stadium on Aug. 16th. With the Dawgs last home date of the season and an opportunity to end a decade-long championship drought, 3,745 baseball watchers showed up to witness a contest that had plenty of momentum changes.

The home side got on the board first when White Rock, British Columbia second baseman Liam Rihela knocked a one-run blast over the right field fence in the second inning.  Regina immediately answered in the top of the third inning, when four Red Sox hits and a pair of errors by the Dawgs resulted in three runs off of Simpson, the complete-game shutout hero in Game 3 of the series against the Prospects.

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Liam Rihela, right, celebrates a home run at Seaman Stadium against the Regina Red Sox in the WCBL championship … photo by Ian Wilson

Okotoks started cooking again in the fifth inning, when Patterson rustled up a leadoff walk and Peters followed that up with a double. Centre fielder Davis Todosichuk – who batted .333 in 27 postseason at bats – drove in Patterson with a single to cut Regina’s lead to 3-2. Following a Melton strikeout and a pitching substitution that saw Red Sox starter Branden Redfern lifted for Grant Dowty, Logan was thrown out at first base and Todosichuk’s aggressive lead at second base looked like it would be the final out of the inning. But the Okanagan College senior scrambled back and Peters took advantage of the infield mayhem by stealing home on the play and tying up the ball game.

“It was all part of the plan,” joked Todosichuk after the game.

“I knew I could get an aggressive secondary lead as their infield was playing in. A little too aggressive maybe, but it worked out. In games like that it’s great to put the pressure on them and force things to happen. It went our way.”

Simpson, meantime, had allowed just one hit over three innings since Regina’s three runs in the third frame. The stingy pitching and defence allowed Okotoks to regain the lead in the bottom of the sixth when shortstop Ricky Sanchez and Patterson slapped back-to-back singles. Sanchez stole third base and a Todosichuk base hit plated the infielder.

A wild seventh inning left the crowd in need of a stretch and a rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

Manhard subbed in for Simpson and Regina’s Rio Russell worked a walk before infielder Ivan Nunez launched a ball high into the night sky towards the left-field wall. Melton tracked it before crashing hard into the fence and falling down on the warning track. Todosichuk ran over to check on his fellow outfielder, as the umpires and the assembled crowd tried to locate the ball.

“When the ball was hit I knew I had to let him know where the wall was. I counted his steps down as he approached the wall … ‘three, two, one, wall.’ He knew it was there and still put his body on the line for his teammates,” said Todosichuk.

“The ball was only a foot over the wall and after he jumped and hit the wall he was only about three inches from it.”

The two-run shot gave the Red Sox a 5-4 lead. The next batter, Adam De La Cruz, sent another ball Melton’s way but he made a diving catch for the first out of the inning. An out, a walk and another out later the fans were still processing the action and the possibility that a WCBL title might be slipping away.

Redemption would come, however, in the bottom of the eighth inning.

After a three up, three down series for Okotoks pitcher Dan Ferrario, the Dawgs hitters went about their business. Hollis stroked a leadoff single, prompting the coaching staff to bring in the speedier Richard Mascarenas as a pinch runner. He advanced to second on an error by the pitcher and Sanchez delivered an RBI single that evened things up. Another infield error allowed Peters to reach first base and Sanchez to get to third. Todosichuk stepped to the plate looking for a slider, which he got on the first pitch. He laid down a perfect bunt along the first base side and as he slid into first, Sanchez slid into home, giving the Dawgs the lead again.

“A push bunt is hard to defend, if placed well, and I knew they didn’t have a chance to get Sanchez at the plate,” said Todosichuk, who finished the game with three RBI, one run and a stolen base.

“It was placed in that perfect spot where the infielders didn’t know what to do, and that was the main goal.”

A two-out double by Logan padded the lead to 8-5 by the end of the eighth.

CLOSING TIME

Okotoks pitching coach Joe Sergent – who had enough to think about over the summer as he and his wife, Lauren, awaited the birth of their first child (a healthy Maia Elizabeth Sergent arrived on Aug. 26th) – was looking for a smooth delivery of a different kind in the ninth inning. For that, he gave the ball to the surgical hands of Desjardins, who already had a pair of relief wins and a strong five-inning start during the playoff run.

Desjardins set down the first Regina batter he faced, via strikeout, before conceding two hits, a walk and a run. A second out followed and the crowd prepared to celebrate.

The Calgarian punched out designated hitter Robbie Wilkes for the third out, and as the dropped third strike was tossed to Patterson at first base, the Dawgs faithful erupted.

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Brandon Desjardins had an eventful playoff run for Okotoks, going 2-1 with a save, 11 Ks and a 3.72 ERA over 9.2 innings … photo by Ian Wilson

“I really wanted to end it with a strikeout. With all that noise, I had to throw a good curveball and I did, so I’m pretty happy with myself,” said a grinning Desjardins of the out that sealed the WCBL title for Okotoks.

“It means a lot because I grew up in Calgary and I always played against the Dawgs and never beat them. It’s a dream come true to play for them and get a championship.”

MV-PETERS

Appropriately, Peters was named the most valuable player (MVP) of the postseason. The Winkler, Manitoba native and Dawgs Academy grad batted .313, with three stolen bases, four RBI and six runs in eight playoff contests. Whether it was with the bat or the glove, the Chandler-Gilbert Community College product was a consistent performer throughout the regular season and the playoffs for the Dawgs.

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Tristan Peters (No. 26) was named the playoff MVP by WCBL President Kevin Kvame (blue sweater) as his teammates cheered … photo by Ian Wilson

“I really wanted to come in and win this league. No other goals, really. Just hit the ball hard and have fun,” Peters told Alberta Dugout Stories at the WCBL All-Star Game in Edmonton.

“I’ve really been trying to have a lot of fun and I definitely have been.”

For Ricky Sanchez, the championship was a win for himself and his older brother, Eddie Sanchez, who both moved from Mexico City and learned their craft at Dawgs Academy. Eddie was a longtime middle infielder on the summer club in Okotoks, a fan favourite and a recipient of the team’s 2017 True Grit Award, in recognition of his tenacious play.

“I played baseball for about nineteen years and this was my first summer away from the game, so it was definitely very weird,” said Eddie, who now works as a project manager for a roofing company in the U.S.

“Now I get to experience baseball through my brother’s baseball career,” added Eddie, who watched all of the playoff games online.

“I am extremely happy that we won a championship. I think the town of Okotoks deserved a championship and I’m glad the ‘Okochokes’ curse is gone.”

Dawgs fans who witnessed Ricky at Seaman Stadium during the 2019 home opener against the Prospects on May 31st can be excused if they were squinting at the shortstop. Sporting high red socks and the same No. 8 on his back that Eddie wore during his tenure with the team, Ricky brought back memories of his beloved brother.

“Physically, Eddie and I are the same, in the sense that we’re not the biggest and strongest players on the field, but we play the game with the biggest heart and never take a game for granted,” said the 18-year-old WCBL rookie.

The brothers were in frequent contact during the season, which saw Ricky suit up in 18 regular season contests before playing in all eight playoff games.

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Ricardo Sanchez, right, is all smiles after a hit in the WCBL finals vs. the Regina Red Sox … photo by Ian Wilson

“I talked to Eddie quite a bit and he reminded me that at the end of the day, it’s just a game and to play the game I always do, by having fun,” said Ricky, who scored five runs and collected four RBI in the postseason.

UNSUNG HERO

One player who didn’t see game action during the playoffs and only appeared in six games over the regular season was Dayne Fredland. The catcher from Okotoks, who is entering his senior season at Mayville State University, caught bullpens and helped the pitchers warm up throughout the summer.

Fans may not have noticed him, but his teammates and coaches did.

“I was just very thankful to be held on the roster and be given a shot to show that I can play at that level of competition,” said Fredland.

“When I was asked to do something, I just did it. I was just happy to be a part of it all.”

Added Fredland: “This championship meant a lot to us. It’s been a long time since we’ve had one in Okotoks and the fans deserved it. I couldn’t believe the amount of fans that came down to the field after the game was over and wanted to take pictures with the trophy.”

Managing Director John Ircandia – who founded Dawgs Academy in the mid 1990s before introducing the summer collegiate club in 2003 and spearheading the move to Okotoks in 2007 – thought of his father after the team captured their fifth championship. John Ircandia Sr. passed away on July 1st at the age of 92.

“It was kind of personal,” Ircandia told the Prospects Baseball Show podcast.

“My dad was a huge fan of the Dawgs. … we had lots of conversations about the Dawgs and he would say, ‘Are the fans still coming out?’ He was always amazed at the number of fans who enjoyed watching us – he would say, ‘They really deserve another championship.’ When we won this championship, I did some personal reflecting and said, ‘Dad, we got this for you. I hope you’re watching this on celestial YouTube or something,’ so there was that personal side to this particular championship.”

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