Flying up the standings and into the playoffs is a top priority for the Edmonton Riverhawks heading into the 2023 West Coast League season.
While they didn’t get a chance to play playoff baseball in 2022, the Riverhawks’ final few weeks of the season gave them a small taste of what playoff intensity can be like.
It’s left the coaching staff and returning players wanting more, and the journey to get there begins June 2 with a visit to the Bellingham Bells.
It will be a big first test for the Riverhawks, as the Bells are the defending North Division champions, falling short in the WCL final to the Corvallis Knights.
Head coach Jake Lanferman says he’s excited for the opportunity to improve on the team’s 25-28 performance last summer.
He believes the organization has done a great job of bringing in the right pieces to compete for a playoff spot.
“Our returning players will be trusted to guide and lead the younger players using their personal experiences,” said Lanferman. “To grow on our successes from last summer starts with chemistry and having a team that wants to play for each other instead of themselves.”
LOCAL CAST OF HAWKS
Lanferman, who hails from Sherwood Park, will once again be leaning on several Alberta products to be major producers this summer.
On the mound, returning veterans like Beaumont’s Shaun Atamanchuk, Red Deer’s Heath Hachkowski, Calgary’s Brendan Loeppky, and Edmonton’s Tylor Jans, Brady Kobitowich and Chas Wheatley will all be counted on to eat up innings, especially as all had solid spring college seasons.
“I’m super-excited to be playing in Edmonton again,” said Kobitowich, who went 5-0 with a 5.10 earned-run average in 18 appearances for Niagara University this spring. “Playing in front of that many fans and doing it in the same stadium I grew up watching baseball in is super-special, too.”
Hachkowski, meantime, went 1-1 with a save and a 5.40 ERA in nine appearances at Big Bend Community College, after making three appearances for the Riverhawks last summer.
“I’m looking forward to playing some high-level baseball and traveling to some new places as well,” said the 6-foot-5, 230-pound righthander. “I’m just ready to have a competitive season with this group of guys and continue to work hard and get better.”
“It means a lot getting to play here as I remember being that kid coming to the ballpark and watching the Capitals and Prospects,” said Gardner, who hit .305 with eight home runs and 32 RBI in 52 games at Mount Marty University this spring. “Now to be on the team that people come to watch is special.”
Poole, meantime, will be a late arrival as he remains at the NCAA tournament with Dallas Baptist University, where he hit .252 with nine home runs, 30 RBI and nine stolen bases in 48 games.
“I’m looking forward to seeing all the guys from last year and tearing it up with them,” he said. “I’m hoping to have a good time, get better and win some ball games.”
The vets, which also include Arizona products KJ Ward and Riley Barrett, will be joined by some new recruits including Beaumont’s Reece Hemmerling and Edmonton’s Halen Knoll.
“From a pitching perspective, we have more depth to start the season than last, which will help us throughout the summer,” Lanferman said. “Overall, there is an increased depth at all positions as our recruiting process was more rigorous.”
The skipper believes the team will be solid defensively and they will have plenty of speed on the basepaths.
One noticeable absence is Sherwood Park’s Clayton Loranger, who was a WCL All-Star in 2022 after hitting .365 with two home runs, 30 runs batted in and 27 stolen bases in 48 games.
Lanferman says the Stephen F. Austin State University outfielder was a senior this spring, making him unable to come back to the WCL.
He’s hoping players like Kelly Corl, who hit .294 with two home runs, 20 RBI and 8 stolen bases with the ‘Hawks last season will be able to pick up some of the slack.
HEAD OF THE HAWKS
After a great collegiate career of his own, Lanferman turned his attention to coaching and has quickly ascended up the ranks within the Riverhawks group.
Originally the assistant coach under Kelly Stinnett and the head coach of the Edmonton Collegiate Hawks, the organization announced he would be the skipper for both teams heading into 2023.
Lanferman takes a lot of pride in being able to grow the game in the capital region, and is doing his best to be immersed in the community, especially to get minor baseball programs involved.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to help grow and progress a program here,” he said. “Having my family and friends come to watch our team play this summer will definitely be a highlight.”
He also has the backing of a strong group of assistant coaches, including Nolan Weger, Dylan Clasch, Nathan Coffin, and long-time Edmonton-area coach Ray Brown.
“Ray’s knowledge and love for the game of baseball is something I will always admire,” Lanferman said. “He’s a great person, and having him with us at the field every day is so much fun as he’s an entertaining guy.”
The head coach says he likes the dynamic between the two as well, as they can challenge each other to get the most out of their players and to help them improve both individually and as a team, which he adds is their top priority.
When it comes to expectations for the season, Atamanchuk doesn’t mince words.
“Win a WCL championship,” he said, adding he’s been waiting for weeks to get back onto the field with the team.
Gardner says it will be up to the veterans on the team to lead the way, as they believe they have some unfinished business from last season.
“We came up just one win short of making the playoffs and I think we can make the jump this year and be one of those playoff teams,” the outfielder said.
“We are here to have fun, but it’s about winning baseball games and displaying winning baseball for our fans.”
The players and coaches are all aware that they are still building something at RE/MAX Field, but they would all love to leave their mark on it before too long.
While Edmonton’s old moniker was “The City of Champions,” the Riverhawks would like to add their name to the long list of winning teams.
“Growing up in the Edmonton area, I know this city is incredibly proud of its sports teams and this year, we will see a significant increase in local support as our program continues to grow,” Lanferman said. “I’m looking forward to leading this group, as we have the right coaching staff and players to compete and win games.”
The Riverhawks season begins with a nine-game roadtrip, and their home-opener is slated for June 13 against the Kamloops NorthPaws.