By KEVIN GLEW
He is Alberta’s Big Maple.
That’s a fitting nickname for Okotoks Dawgs ace Graham Brunner, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 225 pounds.
“My weight/strength coach (Ryan Swenson) at Illinois State this year called me that (Big Maple) because we didn’t have too many Canadians and I’m a heavier set guy,” explained Brunner. “So I kind of ran with it.”
The 22-year-old lefty, whose Twitter handle is @BigMaple29, has done the nickname proud while fellow Canuck southpaw James Paxton (Big Maple in major league circles) recuperates from Tommy John surgery.
Brunner is 6-0 with a 3.04 ERA in eight starts for the first-place Dawgs and his performance has earned him a selection to the Western Canadian Baseball League All-Star Game, which will take place at Seaman Stadium in Okotoks, Alta., on Saturday.
“The last time there was an (WCBL) All-Star Game I didn’t get picked and it was in Edmonton . . . so I’m really excited to be playing in Okotoks in front of the home crowd,” said Brunner.
READ MORE: Brunner Back Home
Born and raised in Sherwood Park, Alta., Brunner has been a natural left-hander since he began playing baseball at age seven.
“My parents told me that I just started throwing stuff with my left hand,” said Brunner.
His parents, John and Joanne, who met while playing softball, instilled a love of baseball in him and he started pitching at the Mosquito level when he was 10.
“I pitched a lot that year and I just fell in love with it,” explained Brunner.
The young southpaw grew up a Toronto Blue Jays fan, watching Roy Halladay pitch intently, and he soon became on a standout on the mound locally and provincially, but he had never heard of playing college ball until his first year at Archbishop Jordan High School in Sherwood Park.
“Honestly, I didn’t really know there was college baseball until about grade 9,” said Brunner. “I thought you just got drafted and that was it [that was the only option].”
But after he learned about college ball, he knew that’s what he wanted to do. In grade 11, he transferred to the Okotoks Dawgs Academy and attended Foothills Composite High School.
“That definitely changed my baseball path. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without what the Dawgs have done for me,” said Brunner. “In grade 11, I played on the summer team with the college guys and those older guys were mentors. I was 17 playing with 23-year-olds and I learned from just being able to look at what they did and how they carried themselves and what it meant to be a pitcher, and also be a man.”
Jeff Duda, Brunner’s pitching coach at the Dawgs Academy, can remember the young lefty’s early days with the organization.
“When he first showed up at the Academy, he was a soft-throwing lefty, but he had exceptional feel,” said Duda. “The thing that struck me was just how care-free and how happy he was all of the time no matter what . . . He was just a great kid to be around.”
One of the first things that Duda worked on with Brunner was establishing a routine.
“He had never been in a weight room before and he had also never done any sort of structured or significant throwing programs,” said Duda. “So obviously the easy thing was to get him in the weight room . . . and then in terms of throwing, it was really giving him structure.”
Duda also taught Brunner, who’s not blessed with overpowering velocity (86-to-90 mph fastball), many of the fundamentals of pitching.
“He told me it’s more about location than anything and I think I led with that,” reflected Brunner. “And I’ve done pretty well with that.”
Duda also helped Brunner add a cutter and changeup to his arsenal that already included a fastball and curveball.
Brunner’s development at the Dawgs Academy helped him land his first collegiate opportunity at Crowder College in Neosho, Mo., in the spring of 2019.
The big lefty then transferred to Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kan., where he joined friend and Dawgs teammate Noah Geekie (Strathclair, Man.).
Brunner was 4-0 with a 1.78 ERA in six appearances with Barton in 2020 before COVID shut down the campaign. But his dominance earned him a spot as the left-handed starter on the Canadian Baseball Network’s All-Canadian First Team.
He returned to Barton in 2021 and enjoyed another outstanding year, going 7-2 with a 3.84 ERA in 13 appearances (12 starts) and was named to CBN’s All-Canadian Second Team.
His performance at Barton sparked interest in him from Illinois State, a Division 1 school, and he toed the rubber for Redbirds this spring.
For five summers, he has also returned to play for the WCBL Dawgs.
Joe Sergent started as pitching coach for the Dawgs in 2017, the same year Brunner made his debut for the club. He can recall Brunner’s first game with the Dawgs.
“He was pitching against a guy who went on to play some professional ball (Noah Gapp) and he matched up against him and beat him,” said Sergent.
A former left-hander who spent four seasons in the Florida Marlins’ organization and 11 in professional baseball in total, Sergent feels a kinship with Brunner because he was the same type of pitcher. He didn’t possess an overpowering fastball and he had to learn to pitch with what he had.
“When we first got Graham, he didn’t have a cutter, he was kind of a fastball/curveball guy and had a couple of breaking balls, but nothing really changeup-wise . . . and he said in 2018 that he wanted to learn a cutter, so we worked on that.” recalled Sergent. “And we developed his changeup to where now he can throw it very effectively.”
Brunner credits Duda and Sergent for much of his success. He also feels blessed to be part of the Dawgs’ organization and he savors pitching at Seaman Stadium in front of large, spirited crowds.
“Canada Day and Father’s Day games every year are just packed to the roof and it’s just a great atmosphere,” said Brunner. “It just never disappoints at any Dawgs games.”
Brunner counts helping the Dawgs advance deep into the 2019 playoffs as one of his highlights with the club. Unfortunately, he had to go to back to Barton early, so he wasn’t there when the team won the WCBL championship.
“We [Geekie and Brunner] were watching it in our dorm room [on the internet] though,” said Brunner. “So that’s a pretty great memory.”
Sergent says Brunner has improved each year, and this year, the 6-foot-2 lefty, who was the Dawgs’ Opening Day starter, is enjoying his best season.
“I think I’m growing as a pitcher compared to when I started out in the league as a 17-year-old,” said Brunner. “This year I only threw three innings at Illinois State and I think that it was kind of good for me to come back to a place where I know I can pitch a lot of innings and get back to knowing what I can do and running with it.”
Sergent says Brunner has also become a leader in the Dawgs’ clubhouse.
“He came in in 2017 as just kind of another guy, another pitcher, to where now he has developed himself as the leader,” said Sergent. “He is the leader of the clubhouse now.”
Duda has also been impressed by Brunner’s development as a pitcher and as a person.
“He’s just a great human being,” said Duda. “He comes back every year . . . and he mentors some of the young players that are in the Academy right now, much like some of the players did for him when he was coming up through the Academy. It’s easy to point to his pitching, but more importantly he’s just a great human being. He’s just a good kid. He comes from a good family and he goes about things the right way.”
Brunner wasn’t selected in this year’s MLB draft, but he says he’s definitely open to professional offers, including competing in an independent league in the future.
“I’m trying to take baseball as far as I can and run with it as long as I can and keep playing as long as I can. I mean whatever league is interested in me and wanting me there, I’d definitely do it,” said Brunner.
Sergent and Duda believe a professional career is a possibility for Brunner.
“I think there’s a legitimate chance that he could get a shot in independent ball,” said Duda. “With his pitchability and the pitch mix he has, he would definitely be effective enough to help an independent team win.”
Sergent agrees. He says he has a hard time believing there would be 12 pitchers better than Brunner on an affiliated minor league or independent league club right now.
“I hope that when he’s done collegiately that he has the opportunity to continue to play, whether it be with an affiliated team, with an independent team or overseas,” said Sergent. “I’d love to see him live that dream because he absolutely deserves it. For all the hard work he has put in and all the success, I absolutely believe he deserves to play until he can’t play anymore.”
Brunner has transferred to Emporia State University (NCAA Div. II) for this fall where he plans to play one last collegiate season. But before he heads south, Alberta’s Big Maple is looking forward to participating in the WCBL All-Star Game on Saturday.
“I think with our fan base at Seaman Stadium it will be a really awesome time,” he said.