By Amanda Fewer
Canadian Baseball Network
VAUXHALL, Alta. _ When I was first invited to the Vauxhall Academy’s golf and baseball tourney I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. After all, what could this farming community of 1,000 people truly offer besides being the “Potato Capital of the West?
The great Yogi Berra once said “Love is the most important thing in the world. But baseball is pretty good, too.” This couldn’t sum up the town of Vauxhall more perfectly. This academy works as well as it does and is as successful as it is because of the love the town has for it.
I pulled up to the Vauxhall Academy and was immediately greeted by Joel Blake (assistant Coach), Joshua Hoetmer (sport psychology consultant) and the smell of fresh cut grass. Cutting that outfield carpet was head coach Les McTavish. Once he was finished, he couldn’t wait to let me know about the game I had missed the night before in the 11th annual Haven Agencies and Intact Insurance tournament. The way he told the story of the Grade 10 pitcher Adam Macko pitching a complete game while hurling the ball 85 MPH and mixing in a 12-to-6 curve made me feel like I was there watching every pitch.
His story wrapped up as he described how Jared Binsfeld slugged a game winning walk off home run. After hearing the excitement in his voice recapping the game, it was clear that Les McTavish wasn’t a coach just going through the motions. It is obvious that he not only believes in this academy, but is proud of the young men that make up the team.
The next 30 minutes were spent receiving a tour of the Vauxhall players dorm, the high school and fitness facility. I was impressed by how much care and attention is put into making the school a place where the players could have a perfect balance between getting their education and having time to play the game they love.
The Academy and school have a great team in place. From Garrick and Bev Blaine who look after all of the boys and maintain the dorms, to Anna Bueckert who prepares all of the boys meals. Even Todd Ojala and Scott Reiling, (president and vice-president of the Academy, who double as principal and vice principal of the high school, respectively) are hands on. Whether it be helping setup the events or cheering on the team making sure they don’t miss a pitch.
After the tour I asked Les, with such an amazing facility how much of a task is it to recruit players for the program? He responded with “We keep the group to 22 kids a year. It can have its challenges at times as we don’t have the money some of the other programs can offer” He then said something that if I was a parent choosing an academy for my child would make my decision easy. He said “We may not get the best players but we get the best players for our program. We don’t put winning as the No. 1 lesson but we teach these boys how to win through training and development.”
Hearing those inspiring words I couldn’t wait to meet the players and see if what coach McTavish and his coaching staff teach resonates with the players. So it was off to the annual golf scramble.
At the golf course it was great to see about six of the players greeting the golfers, welcoming them to the tournament and taking their clubs for them. Each one of them doing so politely and having fun. A smile on every face. Once inside the clubhouse I was introduced to Adam Nelubowich and Brandon Petite who are Vauxhall Alumni who played for Team Canada’s junior squad. Then I met several of the people that help run the academy and school on a day to day basis, as well as parents like Ken and Susan Scott that came to partake in the festivities and show their support even though their players have graduated from the program. Each person was excited to share their favorite memory or their favorite story from the past 11 years of the academy’s existence.
It was a beautiful day for golf. Sunshine, no wind, it doesn’t get much better. The goal was to raise $5,000 from the golf scramble and that was surpassed before the first tee off. At the end of the scramble speeches were given and thanks were handed out. One special thank you went out to Yukio and Barbara Kitagawa who have raised over $90,000 for the program. Yukio, now 80 years young, had a goal to cycle 100,000 kms in 10 years raising money along the way for every kilometer he cycles. So far this living legend has cycled over 66,000 kms in three years. This would be an amazing accomplishment in itself, but Yukio and Barbara have also matched with their own money every dollar raised.
Once golf was finished it was off to the field to cheer on the home team, the Vauxhall Academy Jets. When the game began it wasn’t hard to feel like part of the family. This small town’s hospitality was the MVP of the night. I had so many people come up to make sure I had everything I needed and to see if I needed a hand. Every spare moment I had was filled with story after story on how this Academy helps not only these kids but the town of Vauxhall. When the program first started and there were no dorms, the players stayed with billet families who cared for them while they attended the school.
Some of these billets have been a home away from home for players for the entire 11 years. People like Peter and Connie have supported the program from day one and when you talk with them you can feel the love and passion they have for the team. They tell stories of where some of these kids have come from not so great places and, while holding back tears of joy, they make sure you know how this program helped turn those kid’s lives around and gave them the tools needed to become great Canadians. Now with the school having dorms for the players the billet program continues on, just modified.
These families still have kids they welcome into their homes as often as they can to give them a break from dorm life and have a bit of “family” time. A family meal here, a paint ball outing there. One couple I met was Clay and Joe-Anne. They are a billet family for three of the players this year and are like proud parents when telling you about the successes that “their” kids are having.
Jeremie Fagnon, former 2013 ABCA/Rawlings NJCAA National Player of the Year with the Midland Chaparrals, was the winner of the first alumni home run derby battling teammate Brendan Hendriks in the final.
Overall it was very humbling weekend. I never expected to be welcomed into a town the way I was in little ole Vauxhall. If you ever get the chance to stop in during high school baseball season and experience the hospitality, I highly recommend it.
Oh yeah, back to Yogi Berra’s quote ... “Love is the most important thing in the world. But baseball is pretty good too.” There was a tournament going on all the while. The five team tournament featuring the Lethbridge Elks, Medicine Hat Monarchs, Calgary Jr. Dinos, Great Falls Chargers and of course the hometown Vauxhall Academy Jets squared off.
Over the weekend the games had nail biting finishes, long bombs, diving catches and masterful pitching performances, all culminating to the hometown team, the Vauxhall Academy Jets, hoisting the trophy after defeating second place Lethbridge Elks.
The Jets combined for a five-inning no-no while the offense managed 13 hits in a 17-2 defeat of Lethbridge.
Garrett Hawkins started on the mound going four innings allowing two unearned runs striking out nine and walking two. Zach Newman finished things off going the final inning with strikeouts to combine for a no hitter.
Offensively, the Jets were led by Brett Mercier, who was 3-for-3 with a three-run line drive homer and four RBIs on the day. Liam Vulcano, Cooper Jones, Ty Penner and Dayton Peters all had two hits apiece, as Vulcano and Penner each knocked in a pair, Jones plated one,
Matt Rath drove in three runs and Jared Binsfeld one run.
* * *
The Jets lost 9-8 to Medicine Hat before bouncing back with an 8-0 over Great Falls.
Connor Green started the Hat game pitching going 4 2/3 innings allowing nine runs -- six earned -- on six hits and five walks, while striking out five. Ty Penner finished off going 2 1/3 allowing two hits with three strikeouts.
Offensively, the Jets were led by Cooper Jones who was 3 for 5 with an RBI, while Liam Vulcano and Jared Binsfeld each had two hits. Brett Mercier, Kaiden Cardoso and Matt Gough each had a hit.
Ben Erwin dominated against Great Falls pitching a complete game one-hit shut out. He walked two and fanned 11. The Jets had 12 hits from six different players: Liam Vulcano was 3-for-4 with two doubles, Cooper Jones was 3 for 4 with a double and an RBI, Jared Binsfeld was 3 for 4 with a double and 3 RBIs, while Brett Mercier with an RBI double, Ty Penner with an RBI-double and Matt Gough with an RBI single also contributed.
* * *
Garrett Nicholson started on the mound pitching five innings in an 8-2 win against the Calgary Junior Dinos. Nicholson allowed two runs on three hits and five walks, as he fanned four. Zach Newman struck out the side. and Garrett Hawkins pitched an inning.
Liam Vulcano, with an RBI, Jared Binsfeld, with an RBI, Cooper Jones, with two RBIs, each had two hits. Owen Harms, Brett Mercier, Dayton Peters, with a two-run homer, Ty Penner and Matt Rath each had a hit.
* * *
Jared Binsfeld lead off the bottom of the with a walk off 4-3 home over Lethbridge. It was Bisnfeld’s second hit of the day. Adam Macko started allowing three runs in the first inning before cruising the seven innings allowing three runs -- two earned -- on three hits and two walks, while fanning seven.
Offensively, the Jets had a balanced attack against former Jet Bryce Fraser. Matt Rath was 2-for-2 with an RBI Dayton Peters doubled, singled in a run and Liam Vulcan had a hit.