By IAN WILSON
The Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) is all about the “Canadian” this summer.
With the 2021 WCBL season set to get going on June 18th in Sylvan Lake and Lethbridge, players from the Great White North will be on full display across Alberta. For the first time in the summer collegiate baseball circuit’s history, rosters of each of the five teams will be 100% Canadian.
So, let’s take a tour around the league, check out some of the players, and see what we can expect from each team during their 40 games of regular-season action.
The Okotoks Dawgs enter the campaign as the defending WCBL champions and the keepers of the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy. The Dawgs won their fifth title by defeating the Regina Red Sox in a best-of-three final in 2019. When the COVID-19 pandemic shelved the 2020 season, the Dawgs had to wait to hold court.
The Dawgs have two teams playing this summer, a move that doubles their chances of winning another championship. Dawgs Academy – a premier high school-aged program that is ranked third in North America by the U.S. scouting service Perfect Game – will provide players that form the backbone of both Okotoks clubs, making them the youngest teams in the WCBL.
Top players on Dawgs Black include southpaw pitcher Matt “Tugboat” Wilkinson, who looks to be the ace in the rotation, as well as right-handed pitcher (RHP) Quinn Tocheniuk, who played for Pratt Community College this year and is also expected to take on a starting role on the bump this summer. Other RHP to keep an eye on include Ethan Francis and Ryan Olchoway, who were recently rostered at Northwestern State University in Louisiana.
Adding to the pitching depth for Dawgs black is Boston Warkentin, a Dawgs Academy product with a fastball that surpasses the 90 mile-per-hour mark who has committed to play college ball at the University of Washington in the PAC-12 conference. Andrew Yusypchuk, a 6-foot-3 RHP from Edmonton, can also chuck it with authority. He’s signed on with Marshall University.
The offence will be paced by corner infielder Ty Doucette – an Oregon State University commit from Halifax, Nova Scotia – as well as University of British Columbia (UBC) second baseman Aidan Rose. Alejandro Cazorla and Kaden Zarowny, who have teamed up with a number of other Dawgs Academy grads to play at Crowder College, will be counted on to track fly balls in the outfield while bringing a keen eye to the batter’s box.
Friends will become foes when Dawgs Black takes the field against Dawgs Red at Seaman Stadium.
Opposing batters will have to contend with some formidable pitchers in the form of red squad’s Graham Brunner, Brendan Logan, and Conor Pote. Brunner, a southpaw from Sherwood Park, is coming off a season at Barton Community College where he went 7-2 with a 3.84 earned run average (ERA) and 65 Ks in 63.1 innings. The ace was selected to the first team of the All-Region VI Division. Both Brunner and Logan, a UBC product, were members of the championship 2019 squad. Logan was mainly a bullpen weapon that year, going 2-1 with a 4.29 ERA in 29.1 innings of WCBL action. Pote, meanwhile, was a star third baseman and righty chucker for Dawgs Academy.
NCAA Division I stalwarts Cole Tucker and Peter Hutzal will bring veteran savvy to the infield. Tucker is coming off a solid season with the Niagara University Purple Eagles. In 27 games, he batted .391 with 19 RBI and 17 runs and six stolen bases. Hutzal collected five homers while playing 33 games at shortstop for Marshall University.
Noah Geekie, of Emporia State University, is another Dawgs Red returnee from the title-winning team who is capable of pitching and producing at the plate, while playing sound defence in the outfield.
At the dish, team rouge will look to the bats of Bellevue University first baseman Kye Seitz – who batted .326 with 30 runs batted in (RBI) through 27 games for the Bruins this year – and High River outfielder Tucker Zdunich, who suited up for the Moose Jaw Miller Express two years ago. Zdunich belted eight home runs and scored 40 runs in 47 games at Colby Community College in 2021.
Whether Dawgs fans choose to bet on red or black, they’ll have an exciting new feature to enjoy at the ballpark. The iconic Core 4 (+14) Corner consists of phenomenal hospitality patios, a visitors clubhouse, and a “Core 4 Perch” that overlooks the left-field wall.
SYLVAN LAKE GULLS
It will be a season of firsts for the Sylvan Lake Gulls, an expansion franchise that will play out of a state-of-the-art facility. Gulls Stadium, an 882-seat ballpark with berm seating at Pogadl Park, is expected to be a star performer for the team for years to come. It will make its WCBL debut on June 18th when the Gulls host the Edmonton Prospects.
Head coach Jason Chatwood will be tasked with ensuring the excitement of the new ballpark translates into a competitive product between the lines. Among his roster of 24 players is a healthy contingent of UBC Thunderbirds, including lefty pitcher Finnigan Duffield, infielder Nolan Weger, catcher/outfielder Wyatt Schnorr, and outfielder Jake Lanferman, who played for the Edmonton Prospects in 2017 and 2018.
Chatwood’s alma mater, Colby Community College, will also be well represented. Outfielders Brayden Cust (.368 batting average, eight homers, 17 stolen bases) and Zach Olson (.455 on-base percentage, 14 homers, 35 RBI), were joined by first baseman Tyler McWillie (.375 average, 12 homers, 41 RBI), as well as infielders Kyle Froehlich (.333 average, .433 OBP) and Cleary Simpson (.338 average, .469 OBP) as the lethal bats in the Trojans lineup this year. On the mound, McWillie, Froehlich and Jared Arnold were key contributors at Colby. All of these players will be called upon in Sylvan Lake.
Other notable roster additions include Bonnyville pitcher Nik Cardinal, who played for the Fort McMurray Giants in 2019 and for Fresno State this year; Calgarian Logan Grant, who batted .423 with eight round trippers and 58 RBI for the Bismarck State Mystics this season; and Edmontonian Matt Bondarchuk, who won a WCBL championship with the Swift Current 57s in 2017.
Baseball observers should also check the Sylvan Lake box scores for Vauxhall Academy grad Jackson Clemett, and Airdrie southpaw Evan Wilde, who sat down 76 batters via strikeout in 60.2 innings for Cloud County this year.
The roster of the Lethbridge Bulls will feature a strong dose of Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) products, which makes sense considering it’s an area school and Bulls coaches Luc Hebert and Chance Wheatley have spent time instructing aspiring ball players at the academy.
Pitchers going from the PBA to the Toros include Kyle Poapst, Ethan Smith, Jake Anderson, Matthew Kohle, Jordan Calibaba, Ty Schaffer, Kade Kahlert and Kyle Bloor, while batters Torren Vaselenak, Josh Kabayama, Dalton Demers and Brad Goodwin will also rep the PBA in the Bulls locker room.
The team will also lean heavily on Vauxhall Academy alumni, including the likes of catcher Ty Wevers, who played for Cloud County Community College this year; lefty slugger Carlin Dick, who was named to the 2021 All-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) rookie team while playing for Canisius College; utility player Nick Gravel; and UBC infielder Ty Penner.
Levi Abbott, who struck out 19 batters in 21.1 innings at Canisius College this season, and Justin Adamoski were among right-handed pitchers who suited up for the Jets before signing on with the Bulls. Thomas Little, a 33rd-round Philadelphia Phillies draft pick in 2019, is the lone southpaw on Lethbridge’s pitching staff.
Joining all the PBA graduates and former Jets will be Flynn Ridley, a reliever from the 2019 Medicine Hat Mavericks who represented the Mavs at the WCBL All-Star Game that season.
The Prospects will need to be the ultimate road warriors this summer. That’s because they won’t have a diamond to call home while their stadium is being constructed in Spruce Grove for the 2022 season.
Edmonton will play a share of their “home games” out of Okotoks, Lethbridge and Sylvan Lake, while other matchups will take place in Sherwood Park and at Spruce Grove’s Henry Singer Ball Park. This group will need to be a resilient bunch in the face of so much travel and with a lack of familiar lodgings.
Head coach Jordan Blundell has some interesting weapons at his disposal. A large influx of talent is thanks to Prospects pitching coach Nick Salahub, the head coach of the Vancouver Island University (VIU) baseball team. Salahub has brought Mariners RHP Aden Richardson, lefty Jordan Moffatt, Calgary outfielder Trent Lawson, Camrose infielder Devin Heck, and St. Albert outfielder Conor Bronson into the fold.
Behind the dish, Dawgs Academy grad Jean-Luc Bussieres will be throwing down signs, as will Dion Wintjes, who hit nine dingers and produced 42 RBI for the Marian University Knights this year. Matt Reyes, who is capable of playing third base and catcher, batted .366 with a .500 OBP, seven homers and 36 RBI in 44 games at Graceland University in Iowa in 2021.
The outfield will be patrolled by Lawson, Bronson, UBC’s Jonathan McGill and Stephen Horner, who played for the University of the Fraser Valley Cascades in the Canadian College Baseball Conference (CCBC).
Scott Gillespie, of Sherwood Park, and Jesse Poniewozik, of Spruce Grove will bring a veteran presence as returning pitchers to the squad.
As these five Alberta teams prepare to do battle for WCBL supremacy, the full league schedule has been released.
The province is currently in Stage 2 of Alberta’s Open For Summer Plan, which allows for one-third capacity at WCBL stadiums, but Stage 3 could be reached by the end of June or early July, allowing for all restrictions to be lifted.