Leader of the Dawg Pack

By JOE McFARLAND

It’s been famously said that if you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.

When looking back on history, it can be fun to look at the path and then wonder what would have happened had a different turn been taken along the way.

So goes the story of the Okotoks Dawgs and Dawgs Academy. A lot has been said about how the organization began and how it ended up moving south from Calgary to become a baseball oasis in the heart of Canada’s prairies in Okotoks.

When managing director John Ircandia steps onto the Seaman Stadium concourse, he admits it does feel like it is his own field of dreams.

“I do sometimes pinch myself in the sense of what we can do and how dedicated our coaches can be to make kids better in this program we’ve created and the facilities we’ve made available for them,” Ircandia told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “It is quite phenomenal and I have a lot of pride with that.”

It’s been quite the journey, both personally and professionally, for Ircandia and over the course of our 45-minute conversation, we covered a lot of ground. The hope was to provide some insight into not just the day-to-day operations of the Dawgs program, but to shed some light into his mindset and vision for the future.

OVERCOMING THE ODDS

Baseball has been in Ircandia’s blood since he was a child in British Columbia. That love of the game was transmitted to his kids, who were part of a very good youth travel team in Calgary in the mid-1990’s. His son, Matt, was a left-handed pitcher drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2002, Vince was a shortstop who went on to play at Niagara University.

The problem started when it felt like the players on that team didn’t have an opportunity to develop as baseball players to the point where they could get to higher levels.

Enter the foundation for the Dawgs.

“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it right and I’m not going to stop short in the dedication of my effort to succeed in what that mission is,” Ircandia stated. “With the Dawgs, I was extremely determined once we decided to make this a real baseball program.”

Ircandia felt the existing programs were “recreational in nature” and didn’t offer the developmental opportunities to succeed at the next level, especially when compared to other top travel teams in the United States.

“It wasn’t real in the context of the baseball world and how you judge and evaluate actual talent,” Ircandia added.

The Dawgs program was born and featured some big names including Jim Henderson and Emerson Frostad. Despite successes like winning the Western Major Baseball League title in 2004, the team couldn’t find a solid footing at Burns Stadium in Calgary.

Over the next couple of years, disputes over field access with independent league franchises at Burns Stadium (now Foothills Stadium) and a lack of groups, including the City of Calgary and other landowners, willing to partner up on a stadium and indoor facility vision being provided by the Dawgs.

HOME SWEET HOME

Little did they know, their new home would actually end up outside city limits.

Ircandia said the concept was simple and never varied: you provide the land and we will pay all the capital costs of a stadium and indoor training centre. They almost had a deal done for some land near Mount Royal University, but when those negotiations fell through, he was approached about an opportunity in Okotoks.

The buy-in was universal and in 2006, the ground was broken on what would become the new $16-million Seaman Stadium.

Over the next 14 years, the program and its facilities would grow exponentially. It could have been easy for all involved to simply be happy with owning the footprint it had. But just like the players, Ircandia believes they needed to adjust and evolve as well.

“I used to say we gotta look in the mirror and we can’t BS ourselves,” Ircandia said. “We have to turn over the small stones.”

It is all about development and the “minutiae of the game” in his eyes, so that the teams are able to not only play the game, but compete at the highest levels.

“We have to coach them in a way where their athleticism comes into play,” Ircandia continued. “If we do that, then they can play against anybody.”

One of the many examples of where the program has excelled was shown last fall when the Dawgs 18U Black team was ranked third on the list of 18U travel teams in North America by Perfect Game. They were the only Canadian contingent in the top ten.

“There’s a real perfectionism to our approach and we take the development of our players extremely seriously,” Ircandia said. “This isn’t about money, it’s not about part-time jobs, it’s strictly about development and making the kid a better player.”

Those better players continue to move on to bigger and brighter things in the sport, like the Tournament-12 in Toronto all the way up to scholarships to Division-1 schools in the NCAA.

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

Just like the mentality of the players, Ircandia gives off the impression that he’s only really as good as his next at-bat. The foundation has been built and now it is a matter of making things better.

“To be honest with you, I think we’ve arrived,” he said. “I’m happy with where we’ve arrived at. We’re just fine-tuning the facilities, based on the crowds.”

That includes a new berm project beyond the left field fence at Seaman Stadium, among a few other smaller projects. Ircandia would also like to add a set of field lights to their bantam field so that they can also play at night. He is a “blank cheque” when it comes to the baseball side, whether it comes in the form of an additional coach, a new batting cage or some weights.

Again, Ircandia’s key measure of success is player development to be the best they can be.

“For some kids, that means getting drafted like Tyler Hollick, Jordan Procyshen and Matt Lloyd,” he said. “Several of our guys have been drafted. But for most of them, it means being able to go to a college and perform and have that opportunity to make what they can of it.”

On a personal level, Ircandia would also like to see more buy-in from his neighbours to the north. While many baseball fans sing the praises of the college Dawgs, he still sees hesitation in what the academy has to offer.

“More trust in terms of the development model and what it’s different,” Ircandia says in what he would like to see. “Why it’s the right thing for some players in the greater Calgary area than others. It’s just a matter of the knowledge of what’s being offered.”

He also admits that the academy route isn’t for everyone, but he would also hate to see players miss out.

It is an opportunity that wasn’t available not that long ago.

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