By IAN WILSON
They are the defending Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) champions, but their title defense will be anything but easy.
After besting the Sylvan Lake Gulls and the Edmonton Prospects in the playoffs in 2021, the Lethbridge Bulls proved they were the best club on the five-team circuit last summer.
This year, however, the field has opened up and the WCBL membership includes a total of 11 teams.
Despite the challenges of facing a full contingent of teams, the Bulls will welcome back a handful of players who will help them contend for the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy again.
Behind the plate, catchers Ty Wevers and Roger Riley will handle the pitching staff.
Wevers, a local product, played 24 games for the Bulls last summer and batted .337 with three dingers, 22 runs batted in (RBI) and 21 runs scored. He suited up in 44 contests for Cloud County Community College in 2022, where he maintained a .316 batting average with five homers and 26 RBI.
Riley wasn’t a part of Lethbridge’s 2021 roster, but he played well for the Bulls in 2019. That summer the Nevada product hit .333 through 35 regular season and postseason games while scoring 16 runs and producing 15 RBI. With the Regis University Rangers, Riley has a career .403 batting average over three college seasons. In 89 games for the Rangers, he has 15 home runs, 95 runs and 68 RBI.
Other key returnees include infielder Torrin Vaselenak, outfielder Josh Kabayama, as well as utility players Brad Goodwin and Nick Gravel.
Vaselenak appeared in 30 games for the Bulls last year and put in 29 runs and 27 RBI during his time with Lethbridge. The native of Coaldale, Alberta saw limited playing time with the University of Arkansas at Monticello this year.
Kabayama – a Lethbridge player with Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) in the Canadian College Baseball Conference (CCBC) – roamed the outfield for the Bulls in 26 regular season and playoff matchups in 2021. He hit .311 with nine stolen bases and 25 runs during that stretch.
“It’s pretty exciting coming back to a team after having so much success in the first season being a part of it. I’m really excited to be back with the fan base we have here and play with some of the guys from last year,” said Kabayama in a Bulls press release.
During 30 games in the CCBC in 2021-22, Kabayama batted .328 with 10 swiped bags, 35 runs and 27 RBI.
Goodwin is a two-way threat who logged 22.1 innings on the mound for the Bulls last summer, picking up a win, a 2.42 ERA and 22 strikeouts along the way. At the plate, the Sherwood Park product notched 33 runs and 33 RBI in 40 games for Lethbridge in 2021.
Gravel is a middle infielder out of Fall River, Nova Scotia who hit .438 for the PBA in the CCBC in 2021-22, while manufacturing 42 RBI in 35 games. Last season with Lethbridge, the Vauxhall Academy alum was a reliable batter (.307 average, 25 RBI, 29 runs in 41 WCBL contests) and a threat on the base paths with 10 stolen pillows.
A couple of new hitters to watch for in the Bulls lineup include first baseman Carter Claerhout, infielder Brandon Nicoll, and outfielder Noah Rodriguez.
Claerhout is another PBA addition who was dynamite in the CCBC, hitting .351 with seven homers, eight stolen bases and 53 RBI through 2021-22 matchups.
With Southern Arkansas University this year, Nicoll played 55 games for the Muleriders, where he registered a .332 batting average with 13 homers and 76 RBI.
Rodriguez comes to Alberta’s Windy City out of Our Lady of the Lake University, where he played 96 games between 2019 and 2021. The Texan scored 56 runs and swiped 19 bags over three seasons.
On the bump, the Bulls will look to right-handers Aidan Newton and Devin Benavides to make an impact, along with southpaw pitcher Javier De Alejandro.
In 2021-22, Newton worked 44.1 frames for PBA in the CCBC and assembled a 2-1 record with 40 Ks and a 4.47 ERA.
Benavides and De Alejandro shared a locker room with Rodriguez at Our Lady of the Lake University. Benavides went 2-1 with 11 Ks in 12.2 innings while De Alejandro was 1-1 with eight strikeouts in 8.2 innings in 2020-21.
“I’m pretty excited for the opportunity to get out of the States,” said De Alejandro.
“I love the chance to experience a different kind of ball up there that’s different from south Texas.”
Chance Wheatley returns as the head coach of the Bulls this summer, and he’ll be joined again by assistant coach Ryan MacDonald.
The pair will look to guide the Bulls to back-to-back championships under very different circumstances in 2022.
“It was a different year for sure, but we went out their and played and won it,” said Wheatley of the 2021 championship run.
“The league shifts so much year to year, especially this year with Americans coming in … but I wouldn’t say I feel any pressure going into this season to defend it.”
Meanwhile, fans can also look forward to a new video board that’s in place at Spitz Stadium for the upcoming season, as well as some new menu items that concessions staff are looking to add to the lineup.
The Bulls open the 2022 season at home against the Sylvan Lake Gulls on Thursday, May 26th, with first pitch set for 7:35 p.m. Lethbridge will be honouring WCBL umpire Mitch Ball before the game.