By IAN WILSON
The nest is being built and the Sylvan Lake Gulls are spreading their wings as they prepare to take flight.
The Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) expansion franchise provided an update today on construction of their new ballpark while announcing Friday, June 11, 2021 as the date of their first home opener.
“We are thrilled to see this massive undertaking come together with a firm date that fans will be able to mark on their calendars. It is great to see the WCBL continue to expand its roots within Alberta and we are very excited for the Gulls inaugural season in their new stadium,” said WCBL President Kevin Kvame, who was in Okotoks last week to reveal the Dawgs will play host to the league’s 2021 All-Star Game.
Aqil Samuel, the general manager and president of baseball operations for the Gulls, said the selection of an Opening Day “gives us a firm target to focus our efforts towards from now to then.”
The bigger elements of the stadium are being built off-site before they are transported to their home in Sylvan Lake, and Samuel said progress can be seen on a daily basis.
“We currently have the concrete forms for the seats in place, dugouts, and pony wall concrete is also in place. They are currently getting things ready for the next step, which will be laying the outfield sod and prepping the infield for the artificial turf,” said Samuel in a press release.
The Gulls named Jason Chatwood as their first head coach on July 26th. The Innisfail product will be a fixture in Sylvan Lake next summer.
We caught up with Chatwood to discuss his new WCBL job on Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast shortly after that announcement. Here’s what he had to say in that interview:
Q: Jason Chatwood: the first head coach of the Sylvan Lake Gulls. Jason, how does that sound?
A: It sounds good. It’s exciting. I’m obviously very honoured and privileged to get the position, as well.
Q: Walk us through your hiring. When the Sylvan Lake team was announced as a franchise in the WCBL, did you aggressively pursue this coaching job, were you courted for the position? Tell us how this all came together.
A: Once they announced there was a team coming to our area, and it was announced in Sylvan Lake, I have history in Sylvan Lake. I was able to work with teams here for a number of years and I talked a lot with my wife, just to see if this is potentially something we see as an opportunity, if it were to work out. I talked with her lots and with my current position with St. Joseph Baseball Academy, I talked to my administration there to get there support before I went through the application process.
Then I reached out to Aqil and management and expressed interest to them, and they did a tremendous job, as far as the process of going through everything and there was not a bunch of pressure from his end. He wanted to make sure it was a good fit for myself and my family, so I would say I reached out and then we kind of just got to know each other on a personal level a little bit, too, and then from there that’s when things started to pick up and have more serious conversations about the Gulls.
Q: Aqil Samuel is the general manager and president of baseball operations for the Gulls. Did you know him very well before this process?
A: I more knew of Aqil, like back from when he used to coach in Sherwood Park, back in midget. That would be closer to the first experiences. I definitely knew of him. I knew that he was living out in B.C. When he moved out here I touched base and we had him into the academy a little bit and invited him to our showcase and that kind of stuff. It was nice to get to know him better and build that relationship with him.
Q: You live and teach in Red Deer and St. Joseph Baseball Academy started up last year. There’s a lot going on in that area. Tell us about your roles, will they change at all?
A: I’ll be a teacher and a lead instructor at the academy. I work with our director, Scott Murray, and we’re building a really, really solid team of coaches with the academy. As far as that goes, those will probably be my main two focuses. I’ll be able to focus on the academy during the school year, and obviously being able to work alongside Aqil with the recruitment piece, and then during the summer I’ll be focused on the Gulls. Having the support of the academy was huge, with them supporting me in accepting this role. Between the two, it’s going to be a really exciting partnership, or relationship you could say.
You can see some of the positives if you look down the road at what Okotoks has been able to build, with their academy and their summer program. Obviously those kids in the academy, it’s nice when you get to see those kids back on that summer league team when they’re playing collegiately, as well.
Q: I assume that is some of the incentive, having a feeder system. You mention Okotoks, Edmonton did have Prospects Academy. Is that the idea that you’d like to see locally-trained players that you have some familiarity with eventually playing on the Gulls?
A: Yeah, I think that’s obviously the goal. If we have any players in central Alberta that fit what we’re looking for in players for the Gulls than we would love to have those guys come home and play some summer ball. Then you also get to spend some time with family and friends and be a part of that community and give back a little bit, as well. If it’s the right fit for the Gulls and a player in our area, we would love to have those guys, absolutely.
Q: Normally during a major media announcement you’d have a packed room. What was the press conference naming you as coach like, given that it occurred during the pandemic? I noticed you and Aqil applying hand sanitizer before shaking hands. Was the whole thing a bit odd in this environment?
A: Everything is a little bit different now, regardless of what you’re doing. I wouldn’t say it necessarily took that much away from the experience. I thought Aqil and I did a great job of hosting the event. In normal circumstances there would’ve been more people there but I think that, based on what he was telling me, it sounded like there were quite a few views, as far as people tuning in and showing interest through Facebook Live.
I think in the area of Sylvan and central Alberta, I think Aqil and (team owners) Graham and Jennifer Schetzsle and the organization, I think they’ve done a great job as far as creating a buzz and excitement where people are very, very interested in following the team and looking forward to the 2021 season.
Q: Central Alberta seems like a logical place for the WCBL to set up shop. What can you tell us about that area as a baseball market?
A: Sylvan Lake and Red Deer and all the communities in the surrounding area within a half-hour drive, I think there’s a huge attraction and I think the numbers for this area in our minor ball programs is huge, so I think that we can build relationships with all those associations and have that support, but I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for some of those younger players and families to come check it out. I know it’s not uncommon for a lot of families in this area to drive down to Okotoks for a night, or drive up to Edmonton for a game. To be able to provide that opportunity right in our backyard, it’s going to be awesome for our area of the province.
Q: When discussion of expansion in the WCBL comes up, you sometimes hear talk of B.C. but I think markets like Airdrie or Sylvan Lake or Red Deer make sense in terms of reducing travel and strengthening what is nearby. How do you look at that?
A: I think the league’s done a great job. I played a summer in the league in 2008 and it’s been awesome over the last few years to see the growth and what they’ve done. I think it’s turning into a league that a lot of schools are really interested in wanting to send their players up here to Canada. The great thing, too, is Canada’s doing an amazing job in sending more and more players down to play in collegiate leagues.
It’s a great opportunity and another great summer league and I think that Sylvan to me seems like a perfect fit for the central Alberta area. The travel will be good and I think that is something that the community itself, and the lake and the experience and everything like that, it’s going to be a very enjoyable summer for a college player to come up and experience it.
Q: With the construction of the new diamond at Pogadl Park are there some nerves with that progressing and getting the nest set up for the Gulls?
A: I was pretty fortunate. I got to see a little of the more detailed plans of what’s in store for the field and I believe it’s going to be state of the art, honestly, I think it’s going to be an all-around outstanding facility and I think that the experience for fans to come and watch a game is going to be top notch and I think there’s more than just the field, too.
With the town of Sylvan Lake there’s that whole area, they’re developing that whole area into a sporting community. They’re putting in a new campground and a splash park for the kids and some community fields and a new football field. The town is really starting to grow and develop. The first piece of that is the stadium. The access, too, to get to the field right off the highway, I think it’s going to make it ideal for people outside of the community to come in, and also for people in the community.
Q: I can’t wait to see it. I assume one of the next big steps for you, if it’s not happening already, is player recruitment. Are you handling the bulk of that, or is that a team effort with Aqil?
A: That’ll be a team effort. We’re going to work alongside each other and we’ve already been having some meetings and talking to a few college and university programs, as well as talking to some players directly. Aqil’s done all of that to start. Now that it’s official that I’m part of the organization I’ll be able to help out a little bit more with that as far as the reaching out and having communications.
The fun part gets to begin and we get to plan on building our team.
Q: You’re an alumni of the Colby Community College Trojans, which graduates some great baseball players. We seem to notice every year that there’s a lot of Alberta content on those teams. Are you going to circle back to your old school and be talking to some of the players and coaches there?
A: I think coach (Ryan) Carter there, he and I had a pretty close relationship. He has really taken advantage of recruiting up in this area. He understands what type of a player he’s going to get when he recruits an Alberta player. So, absolutely we’re going to be in close contact with him. That’s a big thing is building those relationships with those coaches to find the right home for their players in the summer and hopefully, for some of them, it’s Sylvan Lake.
Q: Your announcement as head coach was very well received, judging from some of the reaction on social media. What does it mean to you to see so many people support you in this position?
A: I was born and raised in Innisfail. I grew up here and played my minor ball in the Innisfail and Red Deer area. I have a lot of family and close connections with friends. I was able to come home when I finished my career at Gonzaga and started my teaching career. It’s been overwhelming, to be honest with you, the amount of texts and calls and messages on that front.
It’s exciting and I’m going to do everything I can and work as hard as I can to help make the Gulls a successful organization.
Q: What does a successful 2021 Western Canadian Baseball League season look like for the Sylvan Lake Gulls?
A: We’re going to try to be as competitive as we can. The league is extremely strong and we’re going to have to do a good job and recruit the right type of players and make sure that they have a great experience. Obviously, you want to win. That’s a big reason why you play the game. We want to go and develop the players, but also everything is better when you’re winning. That’s going to be a goal of ours, to just come and compete and we want to make sure everyone knows that when they come into Sylvan Lake they’re going to have a tough game and they’re going to have to battle.
We want to have a team that works hard and is going to be competitive.
Q: Going back to the recruitment side of things, how nice is it to have time at the beach as a team perk? That’s not one that you get a lot of in the WCBL markets.
A: The lake gets pretty busy, so I don’t know that it’s going to be a perk but it will probably have to be something that we’re going to have to manage so that they’re not spending too, too much time out the lake.
I think it just adds one more thing and it’s a different piece. The town has really got behind this and is really showing the support. From a recruitment standpoint for a player, I think knowing what they’re going to get if they come to Sylvan is they’re going to get treated very, very well. Ownership and management has expressed that right from the beginning. They want to take care of the players. They want to make sure that they have a good time and a good experience and they also want to support them in anyway possible.
It’s going to be a very fun place to play … if there was an opportunity like this back when I was playing, I would’ve jumped all over it.