Vauxhall’s McTavish mines Maritimes for talent
* Coach Les McTavish was at the Canada Cup evaluating talent from coast to coast to replenish his Vauxhall Academy Jets program. ….
By Todd Devlin
LONDON — The Vauxhall Academy of Baseball may be tucked away in a small Albertan town of 1,200 people, but when it comes to recruiting players, head coach Les McTavish believes in scouring the entire country, leaving no stone unturned in searching for talent.
It’s been that way since the academy opened seven years ago.
“We wanted to be a high-performance academy, and you want to get the best student-athletes you can regardless of where they’re from,” said McTavish, who has been at the helm at Vauxhall since the beginning.
As a result, players who may not otherwise have had the opportunity are now getting the chance to develop their skills and launch themselves into collegiate or professional careers.
In particular, players from Canada’s eastern provinces are being given more opportunities than ever before, thanks in large part to the efforts of Vauxhall and other academies that are recruiting from outside some of the baseball hotbeds like Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec.
“We’ve always enjoyed having kids from out east,” McTavish said. “We find that they’re always really hungry to play the game, and they don’t need a lot of the glitz and glamour that some of the bigger provinces need.”
This year’s Vauxhall roster includes eastern province returnees, RHP Anthony McKinley (Dartmouth, NS), RHP Luc Hebert (Cocagne, NB), RHP Jesse Borden (Dartmouth, NS) and INF Chris Thibideau (Dartmouth, NS). McTavish also welcomed his most recent P.E.I. player this fall — LHP JP Stevenson (Bedeque, PEI).
“They got a good thing going,” McTavish said of the current landscape in P.E.I. “They have good coaches there and a good development system. I think each province out there has its strengths, and I think they’re doing a real good job of developing players, especially at younger ages.”
McTavish’s first look at that talent was Jay Johnson (Sussex Corner, NB), who along with Alex Tufts (Kentville, NS) became the first two eastern province players at the academy when they attended Vauxhall during its inaugural season. Johnson, a left-handed pitcher who is currently playing for Double-A Reading in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, was recently chosen to participate in this year’s Arizona Fall League.
“My experience at Vauxhall was very memorable,” Johnson said. “Coach McTavish was great. He was very personable and easy to talk to. I had endless opportunities to improve at Vauxhall, and 17 brothers to compete with every day.”
McTavish says the success Johnson has had bodes well for both Vauxhall and baseball out east.
“I think as you have success with kids that come from certain areas, I think the kids behind them aspire to follow in their footsteps,” he said.
More than 20 players from the eastern provinces have followed since Johnson and Tufts, and McTavish says he continues to be impressed.
“Each player is a little different, but the majority of the time they’re extremely hard workers,” he said. “And they’re tough kids that know how to deal with adversity.”
Which is a good thing, the coach says, because there’s certainly adversity in leaving one’s home out east and moving across the country to an unfamiliar town that doesn’t have as much as a shopping mall or a movie theatre.
“It’s not easy, and there are a lot of adjustments,” McTavish said. “I try to be very honest with the players and the parents and try not to sugarcoat things. Western Canada is different than Eastern Canada. There’s more of a hustle and bustle approach, and I think the school curriculum in Alberta is more difficult.”
But McTavish says sometimes the size of the town actually works as a benefit in cases of homesickness. Because the town is so small, he says players don’t get lost in the shuffle. And since everybody knows everybody, there can be a feeling of support from the community.
“It’s a caring community, and there are a lot of different people that the players can lean on for an ear if they need it,” he said. “Or when they need a kick in the butt, or a hug, or whatever it may be.”
And if that fails, there’s always baseball.
“That’s why they came out, and I think it’s a common ground,” McTavish said. “They know it and they trust it.”
Despite the challenges, Vauxhall continues to add success stories from its eastern province players every year. And it’s not only benefiting the baseball academy, but also the provincial associations.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to make our program better, but we also hope the players then turn around and help their club teams and provincial teams,” McTavish said. “Baseball in Canada is a tight-knit community, and we try to support each provincial program as much as we can.”
And for the most part, the feeling is mutual from the provincial teams. As an example, Jason Monaghan, the head coach of P.E.I.’s Youth Selects team that participated in last month’s Canada Cup, was instrumental in landing an opportunity for his pitching ace Stevenson to head to Vauxhall this fall.
“We made some contacts for him and sort of got the process started for him,” Monaghan said. “It’s always good when you can help guys move on to bigger and better things in their baseball career. And in programs like that [Vauxhall], they’re going to get better.”
And that’s exactly what the goal is. Most players that head to Vauxhall have the desire to move on to the collegiate level and then into the professional ranks if possible. The latter is happening more and more, with Johnson and Vauxhall proving that players from out east can do it too.