Brunner Back Home

By JOE McFARLAND

Graham Brunner saved his best for last, even if he didn’t know it would be his last.

The 6-foot-2, 171-pound southpaw struck out 13 batters in seven innings of work to help his Barton Community College Cougars knock off their rivals from Colby Community College 12-1 on March 12. The victory sealed a back-to-back split with the Trojans, who won that day’s opener 19-14.

The two teams were slated to play another twin-bill two days later, but the developments surrounding the coronavirus pandemic postponed the affair. The entire Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference (KJCCC) season would be cancelled in short order, abruptly halting a Cougars run of 14 wins in their last 15 games.

For his part, Brunner was rock-solid on the mound. He posted a 4-0 record with a diminutive 1.78 earned run average, striking out 47 batters in a little more than 30 innings of work. The Dawgs Academy product’s final outing also netted him the final KJCCC Pitcher of the Week award of the spring.

We caught up with the Sherwood Park native after he returned home to the province for a recent episode of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.

Q: Let’s start off with the year that you were having. You have been garnering a lot of accolades and things seemed to be going pretty well for you. Tell us a little bit about the season up until the stoppage.

A: It was going really well for us. I was glad we had a really good team. Everyone was pretty excited but when we got the news about the season, it pretty much sucked. I’m hoping most of the guys will be back next year because of the redshirt opportunity from the whole virus thing. But yeah, I was liking where we were at and we were doing really well but it ended short.

Q: On a personal level, what was really working for you on the mound?

A: It felt like everything was doing really well. Everything felt like it was connecting right and our pitching coach, (Brett) McBride, was trying to work on some arm stuff, going back down to where I’ve been all my life with my arm slot. So that was really good. I don’t know what to say about it but everything felt good, the arm was healthy and I felt like it got a lot stronger from the fall at Barton.

Q: Let’s talk about the season cancellation and what led up to it. Where were you when everything went down and you found out you would be heading home?

A: Well, we were talking about it beforehand. Most of the major leagues were being shut down and we figured it would be soon. I was actually pitching against Colby (Community College) in about the fourth inning and one of the guys told me that our season was getting shut down until April 2nd, at that point. I was kind of in shock there but we still had a game to win and wanted to end the season on a good note, or try to. My roommate and I, who is also from Canada, tried to see what was going on and then a few days later they said they were just going to cancel the season,  so we got out of there quick before the borders were shutdown.

Q: How challenging was that to try to focus on a game while also knowing something bigger is happening?

A: It kind of sucked, but I tried to end the year on a positive note, from my side especially, and then obviously win as a team would be awesome. We lost the first game there, it was kind of windy on a small field. Then I tried to go out there and perform my best to get a win on the last one of the season. End it on a good note.

Q: Walk us through what it’s been like over the last week or so as you’ve been trying to get ready to head back home.

A: Well, me and my buddy drove up to Manitoba, that’s where he’s from. Just with planes and airports, we didn’t want to go through that whole mess and maybe get caught with the virus or whatever. And then, just waited at their house. My parents came and picked me up. I’ve been trying to find out a way to work out in my house and stuff like that because everything’s closed. Throwing is going to be tough, obviously, with the winter conditions out here it’s kind of hard. And then not being able to see anybody to throw with is going to suck. I’m hoping summer ball doesn’t get cancelled, otherwise it’s going to be a long summer for me.

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Sherwood Park’s Graham Brunner fires a pitch for the Barton College Cougars. (Courtesy: Barton Athletics)

Q: I want to go back with you now to the very beginning. Do you remember when you first picked up a baseball and fell in love with the game?

A: Well, I’ve been playing since I was five. I’ve always liked it. I got to meet 99% of my friends through baseball. It’s kind of cool that a lot of my buddies I grew up with are playing with Colby now. I don’t know, I just fell in love with the game. I was never a big hockey guy as it was a pretty expensive sport. I got to play with the Prospects (Academy) for a while and then went down to Okotoks and fell in love with it more there. Awesome program there and will always remember that place. Then playing summer ball and now I’m playing in college.

Q: Why Okotoks?

A: I have some buddies who went down there and they really loved it. When I played with Team Alberta, almost the whole team was Dawgs’ guys and I always liked them. They were good when we played against them. We couldn’t beat them a lot of times so I decided to join them, trying to get myself to the next level. I think it paid off. I guess we’ll see.

Q: Why Barton?

A: Well, I went to Crowder my first year. I liked the program and everything, it just didn’t work out. My buddy who I played with in high school, (Noah) Geekie, my roommate at Barton, he said they liked me. Barton talked to me and then I fell in love with the place. Awesome program with a relaxed environment but you still have to follow the line. I like the pitching program here. They let you do what you want but there’s something obviously you have to follow. The environment there is awesome and a beautiful facility there as well.

Q: I know you’re still a young guy, but any highlights so far in your baseball journey?

A: Obviously, T12. That was pretty awesome playing in Rogers Centre. I also turned a triple play this year in my second start. That was pretty awesome, too. Triple play is pretty sweet!

Q: Walk us through that play because that’s something you don’t see every day.

A: Yeah. Well, there were guys on first and second with no one out and the guy tried to bunt. It came back to me up in the air. I caught it and then everyone was looking at first base. I kind of turned around and saw the runner who was at second base was basically at third base so I threw it to Stewy (infielder Andrew Stewart), almost a wild throw but he was able to catch it and then he whipped it to first base to finish it. That was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of on a baseball field, from a defensive standpoint.

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Brunner during a mound visit at Seaman Stadium in Okotoks … photo by Ian Wilson

Q: I can definitely empathize with you on that throw. It might be slo-pitch, but as a pitcher, I can’t for the life of me throw to a base properly. How hard was it for you, hoping you don’t whiff on it and it leads to one of those infamous “misplay moments” you see on TV?

A: Yeah, definitely. I try not to say that to myself because every time you try to just get it there, you throw it into centre field and then you have yourself a big inning to come back against. It is tough going from throwing on a mound to throwing from a flat surface over to second.

Q: So now that you’re back home, what’s the game-plan from your standpoint?

A: Well, I have to self-isolate for another week or so. And then try to see what happens with this virus thing. Maybe try to get down to Okotoks if I can to train and throw and hopefully get ready for the summer if it’s not cancelled. If not, probably get a job here pretty quick to make some money for next year.

Q: And I assume the plan is to go back to college once the all-clear is given?

A: Yeah, I’m going back to Barton for sure because I think we’re getting our redshirts back. That’s definitely my plan, schooling-wise.

Q: How far are you hoping to take this?

A: I’m trying to take this as far as I can. Getting school paid for and at least get an education out of this. I’m trying to play baseball for as long as I can, obviously. I don’t want to get a crummy job.

Q: Based off of your career to this point, if you were to go talk to the younger players at Dawgs Academy or wherever, what would your main message be to them?

A: I would say take nothing for granted, obviously. Try to be the best you can be at the academy, get looked at and get extra work in. I mean, everybody can do the minimal work. That extra work is going to set you higher for the next stage.

Q: What does the game of baseball mean to you?

A: I think it means my life. I honestly don’t know where I would be if I didn’t play baseball. I’ve met my lifetime friends here. I’ve played with people across the globe and met friends across the globe. I’ve played baseball in all different parts of the U.S. and Canada. I don’t know what I would do without it.

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Brunner set to unleash against the Fort McMurray Giants in Okotoks … photo by Ian Wilson
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