Knights’ day dawning taking aim at bantam double-A title
For one long year, the bitter taste has lingered in Brenden Gaboury and the rest of his teammates who left the field in Richmond gutted after the Vancouver Expos came from behind and beat them for the B.C. Baseball bantam double-A championship.
That narrow defeat took away a trip to San Diego and a chance to play in the Babe Ruth regional tournament.
Today at Nechako Field (3 p.m. start), Gaboury and the Prince George Jepson Petroleum Knights have a chance to dictate authority and get their revenge when they meet the Expos in their opening game at the 12-team provincial tournament.
“I want to absolutely kill that team, I don’t want that game to even be close,” said Gaboury.
“A lot of us played on this team last year and we never want to feel that feeling again, it was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever felt in baseball. They will never shut up about that, being a Vancouver team, so we have never forgotten about and never will, so we better beat them.
“Everybody wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We have a solid squad this year, more position (players), more pitchers. We have lots of pitching, which is nice, because last year we ran out of pitching over and over again.”
The Knights love the fact, as provincial hosts, all the other teams have to make the trek north to Prince George. This week’s tournament will be the first games of their careers as rep team players within city limits for the Knights, whose closest double-A opponent is in Kamloops, a six-hour drive away.
They know there’s pressure to succeed as the home team over the next five days and nerves will be tested but the trade-off is they get to sleep in their own beds and eat home-cooked meals. It’s a oncein-lifetime opportunity and they know it.
“It’s awesome to play in front of my family and friends and I’m excited for that but once I step between those lines I have to block out everybody who’s there and it’s go-time,” said Knights infielder/ pitcher James Yandeau. “This is the first time we’ve ever played at home and it’s going to be pretty darn fun.”
The usual powerhouses – TriCity Thunder, Surrey Canadians, Ladner Red Sox and Cowichan Valley Mustangs – are the most likely to spoil the Knights’ longawaited homecoming.
The Knights have about 20 games under the belts this year while most of the teams they’ll face this weekend have played closer to 50. Funded for the second year by the Prince George Youth Baseball Association, they started with indoor workouts in January at the Northern Sport Centre and the results have shown. The Knights won the Valley of Champions tournament in Kelowna, finished second at the River City Classic in Kamloops and just missed qualifying for the playoff round at the Kamloops International tournament.
“We don’t get to play 50 games but we’re a pretty tight-knit group for only playing that much together,” said the 14-year-old Yandeau.
Second-year bantam Noah Lank is the Knights’ ace and he’s backed on the mound by Caleb Poitras, James Yandeau, Preston Weightman, Parker McBurnie, Lucas Kelly and Isaak Lank. Weightman plays shortstop when he’s not pitching and has been steady with his stick, hitting fifth in the order behind leadoff hitter Chase Martin, Poitras, Logan Dreher, McBurnie and Gaboury.
Riley Zummack, Lucas Langevin and Tyson Ramsay round out the 13-player Knights roster.
The Knights had one last workout Wednesday afternoon and ended it with batting practice thrown by coaches Fillion and Sawchuk. Sawchuk, a southpaw who pitched three years at the University of Missouri Baptist and played in the College World Series, warmed up his arm and had the boys whiffing at his fastballs until backup catcher Zummack caught up to one and smashed a line drive into the outfield to end the session.
“If they can hit us, they can hit anybody,” quipped Sawchuk.
Two weeks ago, Gaboury was in Anaheim, Calif., playing for Team B.C. at the US Premier Baseball Firecracker Classic tournament – the only double-A player on a team picked from the triple-A and Premier League ranks. Gaboury, 14, played in four of the six games and hit .400 in 13 at-bats. B.C. went 4-0 in the round robin then lost in the semifinals to a California team.
“There was lots of high-level pitching and the hitting calibre was definitely better than what I’m used to,” Gaboury said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Gaboury is one of the Knights’ most consistent hitters and defensively he’s been a rock behind the plate – a confidence shot for the Knights’ pitching staff.
“He’s so trustworthy, having him back there, you spike a curve ball and you know he’s going to get in front of it,” said Yandeau. “He’s a great hitter, he’s our three-hole hitter.”
Struggles on offence have hurt the Knights’ bottom line at times. Yandeau figures they’ve got the bugs worked out.
“We’ve always had great defence, we’re tied down and don’t make a lot of errors at all,” said Yandeau.
“We start the game and get high and then we drop our bats a bit, but that’s changed the last two tournaments. We stayed on our bats the whole time.
“We’re looking pretty good. We’re very strong. With the way we play together and the way our coaches coach us, we have a great chance of winning this year. Our coaches (Sawchuk, Fillion and Doug Clark) are our mentors on the field and off and I like all three of them a lot.”
Based on what he’s seen in the three tournaments, Fillion says there’s no reason to doubt the Knights will make it to the semifinals on Monday and go on to contend in the championship game later that day at 4:30 p.m.
“We’re got a lot of talent and lot of skill, we’ve got some bats that can swing it and some good arms,” said Fillion. “The thing I worry about most for us is consistency and if we stay in that groove we have a really good squad that can do some damage. We’re scrappy at the plate, we don’t strike out a lot and we get the ball in play. We have a lot of good pitchers and defensively, when we’re on, we’re one of the best teams in the province. Hopefully that all comes together this week and they play some clean baseball.”
Other games today on the two diamonds at Nechako Field include Layritz-North Langley (9 a.m.), Surrey-Tri-City (9:15 a.m.), Burnaby-Ladner (noon), Cloverdale-North Shore (12:15 p.m.) and Cowichan Valley-Vancouver Vipers (3:15 p.m.).
Opening ceremonies are at 6 p.m., followed by the home run derby at 7 p.m. Each of the 12 teams will enter one player in the home run derby, with Gaboury representing the Knights.
Prince George Knight practice for bantam provincials at Nechako Park on Wednesday afternoon.