By ZACH WORDEN
Special to Alberta Dugout Stories
An appearance at the 2023 Canadian Futures Showcase isn’t the end goal for William Labonte, but it’s a significant checkpoint for the young pitcher.
The hard-throwing 16-year-old took the Rogers Centre mound Sept. 22 for Team Navy, and while he admitted he didn’t have his best stuff, Labonte grinded his way through three innings, allowing just one earned run and striking out two.
A member of the class of 2025, Labonte was one of the younger pitchers at the tournament and was handed the responsibility of starting against Team Royal — who one coach called “pretty stacked” before games got underway.
“I really enjoyed pitching today,” the young right-hander said after his appearance. “I can’t say I had my best stuff, but it’s one of those outings where you figure out a way to get outs and still be competitive. And I feel like I did a good job of that today.”
Labonte is committed to Arizona State University and is currently honing his skills as a member of the Okotoks Dawgs academy, where he’s taken a big leap on the field after making the decision to move from Montreal, Quebec to Alberta.
“When he first showed up last fall, he was in that 78 to 83 [m.p.h] range and in a day and age where velocity is preached so much … he didn’t worry about that,” said Dawgs Academy head coach Jeff Duda. “He just focused on getting as good as he could with what he had and getting as strong as he could in the weight room.
“He’s incredibly open to anything you throw at him. That aptitude to adjustments and athleticism has allowed him to get where he is now — pitching anywhere from 85 to 91 [m.p.h.]”
While his fastball is one of the hardest in the country, it’s not all Labonte has in the arsenal. His pitch mix also includes a curveball, cutter and change-up. All four of his pitches generated swings-and-misses at the Showcase, helping him work through his three innings in 61 pitches.
Even with his top-tier velocity, Labonte wants to trust his defence and use all of his pitches when he takes the mound.
“I’m somebody that likes to attack the strike zone. I don’t really care who I’m facing. My game plan doesn’t change from attacking hitters,” he said of the type of pitcher he wants to be. “I think I have good feel for my off-speed pitches, and I try to use them as much as I can. I really enjoy throwing them and feel like I have good control over my stuff.”
According to Duda, Labonte is a very goal-oriented player and being named to the Futures Showcase allowed him to check off one of the boxes as he continues working towards his time at ASU.
“He thrives in these moments. He ended up being one of our best pitchers down the stretch,” Duda said of what he expected from Labonte in Toronto. “It wasn’t that way at the start of the year, but he just kept on working and pitched himself into that situation. He’s a quiet kid, but he’s very mature and controls his emotions so well.”
Now, with some time in the Dawgs system under his belt, Duda is seeing Labonte take on a leadership role a little more often with the academy. Whether it be in workouts, conditioning or just talking pitching, Labonte’s competitiveness and willingness to always be learning has set an example for others to follow in Okotoks.
It’s that desire to always get better that drives Labonte to work so hard and, ultimately, why he decided to “bet on himself” and commit to the Sun Devils.
“I have to keep working really hard to get to that level,” he said, looking ahead to his time in Tempe, Ariz. “I want to become the best version of myself that I can, and it’s a great school, it’s Arizona weather and you can play outside all year long, so that’s kind of why I chose ASU.”
As he moves forward from his week in Toronto, getting the full big-league experience at Rogers Centre, Labonte is adding another goal to work towards.
“It’s really special to be on the same mound that the Blue Jays pitch on,” he said. “Playing in this big of a stadium, you imagine it being full of fans. It’s definitely something special that’s a goal of mine.”