Ayden Makarus knew he was going to a powerhouse.
What he never could have imagined was how challenging it would be to get his first look at a national championship when he joined Louisiana State University at Eunice.
The Bengals had become a fixture in the National Junior College Athletic Conference (NJCAA) Division II upper echelon, winning titles in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2018.
They found themselves back in the championship this past June against Western Oklahoma State in what turned out to be a classic three-game series.
After losing the first game and winning the second, the Bengals clinched their seventh World Series victory in 15 years with a marathon 5-4 win.
It featured a most improbable ending. In the 14th inning, the Bengals’ Hunter Tabb swinging on a strike three pitch that went loose. He advanced to third base on the errant throw, then scored on a wild pitch, the first thrown by a Pioneers pitcher in the tournament.
Pitcher Brock Barthelemy was flawless in the bottom of the inning to preserve the win for the Bengals.
“You know, there are no words to describe it, honestly” Makarus told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “Just the feeling after the final out was made, it was storybook. It felt like a movie in how everything unfolded.”
BOUND TO HAPPEN
Despite the drama on the field during the final three games, Makarus claims it was calm in the Bengals’ dugout.
“We were all behind our guys the whole way and there’s no other way it could have been,” the 6-foot-2, 219-pound catcher said. “We knew we had worked countless hours through the fall and through our spring season preparing for that moment and getting to where we wanted to be.”
Makarus had certainly done his part during the season to help his team compete for a championship, as he posted a .291 batting average with 12 home runs and 47 runs batted in (RBI) in 40 games.
It was a great follow-up to the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, where the Dawgs Academy grad started the year by hitting .439 with three homers and 17 RBI in 14 games.
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He believes a championship was bound to happen, going so far as to say he expected to win one when he first committed to LSU-Eunice.
“We absolutely could have won it all last year as well, but it wasn’t meant to be,” he reflected. “But then our third-year guys choosing to come back this year and play another year and be a part of this program again, they were extremely determined to reach this goal in winning the last game of the year.”
What made the victory even more special for Makarus was that he did it with someone he’s known since high school.
Buena Vista, Saskatchewan native Jackson Fraser is a fellow Dawgs Academy grad who was in his first season with the Bengals.
“It was just one of the craziest and coolest experiences of my life,” Fraser told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “You couldn’t have drawn it up any more. It was just so intense, going back-and-forth, and going that long, it was the coolest game of my life.”
Fraser made ten relief appearances with the Bengals during the season, picking up one win and striking out six batters in just over eight innings of work.
The 6-foot-5, 216-pound freshman smiled thinking he won it all with his buddy, Makarus.
“He caught me in high school, we’ve grown up together and I got to come to his school so I knew somebody,” Fraser said. “Then to be the two Canadians to go down to this school and win it together, it was just something cool. It brought me back to high school and how we had won championships together.”
GAME WITHIN THE GAME
Fraser says there was another factor that added to the intensity to the final game: Western Oklahoma had home-field advantage after winning the first game, so they were able to pick the uniform they would wear.
“They decided to wear the yellow-gold top that they have and told our coach the night before,” the right-hander said. “They hadn’t worn that top the entire tournament, but that was the one we had been wearing.”
It forced the Bengals to change to their purple jerseys, which they didn’t mind doing.
“We get to the field and they weren’t wearing their gold tops, they wore their green ones,” Fraser said. “They just did it to make us change and it just kind of unleashed something in us. We wanted to go out there and we anted to beat them even more because of that.”
With the tension in the air as tight as it was, it set the stage for the epic battle that ensued. In Makarus’ eyes, it showed that the Bengals wouldn’t be distracted by the “game within the game.”
“It’s an extreme brotherhood where you would lay down your life for one another if it came down to it at some point in your life,” the backstop said. “These are friendships you will have a for a lifetime. You spend so much time together and then, for it all to fall into place, it’s unreal.”
MORE TO COME
Another major obstacle Makarus had to overcome was a hip injury that he’s been battling since 2019, which he has had surgery on before.
“Just having to go through that and battle through it every day, planning and being a catcher and using it all the time, it was tough,” he admitted. “Going and winning it all in the end definitely made it worth it.”
He underwent surgery to repair his labrum in mid-July and is now back home. While in recovery, he also plans to weigh his options for the fall and spring.
Fraser, meanwhile, has been pitching for the North Fork Ospreys of the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League in New York.
He has a 1-1 record with a 3.21 ERA in six games, which includes five starts, something he hopes to do when he returns to LSU-Eunice in the fall.
“I get to start out here and try to improve my leadership skills so I can bring it back to the Bengals,” Fraser said. “I want to be a leader and step into a role that I have seen so many of our third-years do so well.”
Both have seen the work it takes to become champions, and want to do it again sooner rather than later.
“Our coach always says ‘the hay is in the barn,’” Makarus smiled. “We’ve put in all this work so whatever happens after, happens. Whatever plan the big man upstairs has for you and your success and failure or how things lay out for you. But everything happens the way it’s supposed to.”
Fraser also harkens advice from Bengals head coach and National Coach of the Year, Jeff Willis.
“The biggest thing he preaches is ‘deserve to win,’” Fraser said. “Put in everything because if you deserve to win, you will find things start falling into place. How can you expect to win if you’re not deserving of the win?”
Makarus, Fraser and their Bengal teammates proved that point this spring.