By DANNY RODE
Sylvan Lake Gulls GM/head coach Jason Chatwood can sit back, take a deep breath and feel somewhat comfortable as he looks ahead to the 2022 Western Canada Baseball League (WCBL) regular season.
“We’re about right where we want to be, the roster is pretty well set unless there’s a few unforeseen circumstances like injuries,” he said.
Now it’s a matter of getting the players in from post-secondary institutions across Canada and the United States prior to the May 26th season opener in Lethbridge.
“It’s just a matter of finalizing the placement of the kids with their host families and making sure they arrive on time and putting together final preparations for the season,” added Chatwood.
Last season, the Gulls’ first, was anything but normal.
Chatwood did all the recruiting and had his roster put together when everything changed. Thanks to COVID-19, the league decided not to bring in the American kids and several teams, including the complete Eastern Division, decided not to play.
Chatwood had to scramble and put together a complete Canadian roster to play in a five-team league with two teams from Okotoks, Lethbridge and Edmonton.
The Gulls turned in a solid performance, finishing second with a 23-17 record before losing to eventual league champion Lethbridge in the playoffs.
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The fact Chatwood had an opportunity to meet a number of college and university coaches while recruiting last season helped this season.
“The guys we recruited last year didn’t get the opportunity to experience coming up here and so we reached out to most of them this year. Some were interested while it just wasn’t a fit for others or their coaches had other ideas for them. We did reach out to the coaches at those schools and they wanted to send some of the guys back or felt we’d be interested in different players or in a different age group.”
Jason also reached out to a number of different schools.
“Some coaches I knew had moved on to another school or we were interested in some kids from other places and we’d talk with the coaches and see if it was a good fit for the player and a good fit for our team and organization. As well the players who played here last season talked with a number of their teammates about playing here and how comfortable they were with the organization and community.
“The guys were treated well and they appreciate that.“
At the moment Chatwood has six players returning from last season, including two of the team’s leading hitters in Kyle Froelich and Tyler McWillie.
Froelich batted .315 with a team-high 15 doubles and 35 RBIs. He had six home runs, second to McWillie, who had eight home runs with a .308 average and 26 RBIs. Both also pitched with 2.33 and 2.28 ERA respectively.
Elnora native Cleary Simpson, who is having an outstanding spring with Colby College in Kansas, is also returning.
“He’s had a really big spring and I’m excited to see where’s he’ll end up after Colby.”
“I had a good relationship with Cleary ever since he was at the (St. Joe’s) Academy and we’re excited about having him back,” said Chatwood. “I’m thrilled to see where he’s at in his career and how he’s grown.
Also returning are Ty Boudreau, Jackson Clemett and Jake Finkelstein.
Boudreau was one of the team’s regular pitchers, finishing with a 3.52 ERA over 46 innings with 49 strikeouts.
Finkelstein worked in two games before suffering a season-ending injury.
It appears as if right-hander Jared Arnold won’t be returning. Arnold had a sparkling 1.18 ERA with 27 strikeouts over 30.1 innings. Indications are he doesn’t have the time needed to commit this season.
“Everyone is in a different situation and some need to make more money and it’s hard to work full-time and commit to our schedule,” said Chatwood. “We certainly back whatever decisions they make.”
Overall, Jason expects to have 11 Canadians on his roster, “about one-third”.
Chatwood is excited to see the WCBL return to an 11-team league with six teams in the West Division and five in the East.
Returning to the East is Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Regina and Weyburn. Brooks and Fort McMurray are back in the West along with the Gulls, Okotoks, Edmonton and Lethbridge.
“The league has a lot of history and it’s exciting to have a full season with everyone back,” Jason said. “It’s good for us and the fans to get a real crack at seeing what the league really looks like.”
The fans will also have the benefit of a new scoreboard as well as other additions to the park.
“The scoreboard is being installed and we’re adding to other aspects of the park to make the fan experience that much more enjoyable.”
While Jason is busy with the Gulls he’s also putting the finishing touches on another school year with the Academy.
“Our numbers continue to grow and we have 10 kids committed to post-secondary schools and expect to have around 15 baseball and softball kids committed by the end of the school season.
“I’m amazed at the work the kids are putting in. It’s rewarding to see how they’re seriously committed to both their sport and their studies.”
The academy has a high-level coaching staff for both softball and baseball.
“We really enjoy it as coaches and the kids enjoy it which is another reason we’re getting more and more kids joining up,” said Chatwood, who expects the local teams to benefit from the program even more in the future.
“With the softball and baseball minor programs starting up for the season, I’m looking forward to watching a lot of our kids play,” he said. “As well the Riggers will benefit down the road, bringing in a number of younger kids to the team.”
(Danny Rode is a retired Red Deer Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at email@example.com. This story has been republished here with the consent of Rode and the Advocate).