Hawkins, Missouri State hosts Canisius

* Connor Panas (Toronto, Ont.) MVP of the MAAC tourney and Brett Siddall (Windsor, Ont.) MAAC player of the year and the Canisius Golden Griffs open the NCAA regional in Springfield, Mo. against the Missouri State Bears and Joey Hawkins (Whitby, Ont.).

* Connor Panas (Toronto, Ont.) MVP of the MAAC tourney and Brett Siddall (Windsor, Ont.) MAAC player of the year and the Canisius Golden Griffs open the NCAA regional in Springfield, Mo. against the Missouri State Bears and Joey Hawkins (Whitby, Ont.).

By Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Looking to earn a bid in the College World Series, there are more than twice the number of Canadians on the road to Omaha this season than there were last year, and with 28 Canucks among the 64 teams heading into regional competition this weekend, there are quite possibly more than ever before.

The most Canadian of the 16 regionals is the one at Hammons Field, hosted by Missouri State University in Springfield. The host team is home to Joey Hawkins (Whitby, Ont.), while visiting Iowa and Oregon each have one player from north of the border, in Austin Guzzo (Brooklin, Ont.) and Phil Craig-St. Louis (Gatineau, Que.), respectively. 

Rounding out the regional is Canisius College, which brings 13 Canadian players, with seniors Connor Panas (Etobicoke, Ont.), Mike Krische (Langley, BC), Tyler Vavra {Calgary, Alta.) and Devon Stewart (Maple Ridge, BC), juniors Brett Siddall (Windsor, Ont.) and Iannick Remillard (Valleyfield, Que.), sophomores Josh Shepley (Windsor, Ont.), Jake Lumley (Windsor, Ont.) and Zachary Sloan (Brampton, Ont.), and freshmen Blake Weston (Oakville, Ont.), Cyrus Senior (Montreal, Que.), Nick Capitano (Bolton, Ont.) and J.P. Stevenson (New Glasglow, PEI). 

“It’s just exciting to have a bunch of Canadians down here,” Hawkins said. “Especially with Canisius. We played Iowa earlier this year with Guzzo, who is from Whitby, where I’m from, so just to kind of connect with them in the States is fun … I’ll pull for some of the Canadians in different regionals, but once I get out on the field it will be about Missouri State and getting the wins.” 

After winning the Missouri Valley Conference championship, the Bears were named the eighth-ranked team in the country, also making them the favourite to advance to the super regional round of playoffs on the road to Omaha. 

“It’s been kind of crazy,” Hawkins said. “Coming into the year we had high expectations, and obviously we met them, but when you start cracking the Top 25 and going on crazy-long win streaks and our Saturday [starter] is leading the nation in strikeouts and our Friday guy is an eventual first-rounder and then now we’re hosting a regional and we’ve got a national seed, it’s just been crazy honestly.” 

The 22-year-old senior infielder and his squad last made it to a regional in his freshman year, when an elite pitching staff led them to the first round of competition in Miami, Fla. Now that they’ve had more time together, Hawkins believes their experience will be the difference-maker for them moving forward. 

“We’ve got a lot of veterans on the squad,” he said. “We have four seniors who played in the regional and we’ve got a lot of juniors who contribute for us. That will definitely help us in the regional … other than that, we’re a really laid-back, loose group – probably because we have a Canadian on the team who handles that. We have fun and that’s what’s going to helps us take our game to the next level.” 

The Bears’ veteran lineup is almost the complete opposite of the makeup of the most Canadian roster in all of Division-I baseball, with the Golden Griffins bringing a much younger team to their second-ever regional competition, winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the second time in three years. 

“Experience-wise, you can see a difference compared to last year,” Panas said. “Last year we would have one freshman, Christ Conley, in our lineup. Now we have four on an everyday basis in our lineup so it’s a very different look. But as they continue to develop through their time at Canisius they’ll become great ballplayers.” 

Two years ago, Canisius headed to Durham, NC, to face the top-ranked team in the nation in the University of North Carolina in their first regional competition. There, they turned some heads with an incredibly hard-fought loss to the Tar Heels. Now, the Griffs are riding their second conference championship into Springfield, where they showed some never-say-die grit, knocking out four teams on their own and taking two straight authoritative victories against Siena to win the title. 

“On this team it’s hard to choose just one person,” Stewart said of who’s been most impressive. “Obviously Connor is very good for us. He was good for us last year, good for us this year, and he’s getting his swing back a little bit and has played very well the last little bit. Brett Siddall has done a great job this year. 

“We’ve had some freshmen come in – J.P.’s pitched well, Tyler Smith has pitched really well out of the [bullpen]. So we’ve got a lot of guys. That’s the biggest thing, we’ve got a group of guys where anyone can get in the box and they’re going to get the job done. Everything is coming together right now and it’s looking good.” 

Springfield’s regional will not be short on Canadian impact players, with Canisius bringing this year’s MAAC Player of the Year in Siddall, who was passed down the honour from Panas, last season’s recipient. 

“A lot of guys are swinging the bat well,” Siddall said. “Devon is throwing really well for us, and then obviously Connor is having another outstanding year … it’s always an exciting at-bat when he’s up. So it’s good to have our lineup, a lot of guys producing runs, a lot of guys scoring runs, and we’ve been able to put up some big runs in some big-time games.”

Added Panas: “Brett – he’s going to crush a ball every time he gets up there. I have 100% confidence in him just like I hope he has 100 per cent confidence in me. When he’s up there I’m expecting to do our little handshake, the selfie, so we look forward to doing that. And Devon’s been lights out this year, [Remillard] as well. And Ryan Stekl is a freshman who has been big for us.” 

Hawkins was named the MVC Defensive Player of the Year in a season that saw him make a big impression on all fronts. 

“Taking a step forward offensively this year is pretty rewarding for me,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t struggle too much last year but it was tough at times and just staying consistent this year was a goal of mine. I definitely achieved that. Also, winning the Defensive Player of the Year in the Valley meant a lot to me because the past two guys who have won it have been pretty successful and have gone on to pro ball so that was definitely rewarding.” 

The Griffs and Bears match up Saturday afternoon at Hammons Field after Iowa and Oregon get the regional started in the afternoon. The tournament is double-elimination format and only one team will advance to super regionals. 

Forth Worth, Texas, hosts the second-most Canadian regional, with Jeremie Fagnan (Calgary, Alta.) playing for the host Texas Christian University, and visiting Stony Brook bringing Johnny Caputo (Toronto, Ont.), Toby Handley (Whitby, Ont.) and Cole Peragine (Belle Ewart, Ont.). 

Champaign, Ill., will have Kelly Norris-Jones (Victoria, BC) representing host Illinois and Christian Botter (Toronto, Ont.) playing for the Ohio Bobcats. The regionals in Fullerton, Louisville, Houston, Coral Gables, Stillwater and Lake Elsinore each have one Canuck looking to continue on the road to Omaha with Arizona State’s Ryan Kellogg (Whitby, Ont.), Morehead State’s Chris Robinson (Uxbridge, Ont.), Houston’s Robert Grilli (Toronto, Ont.), Florida International’s Mitch Robinson (Surrey, BC), Oral Roberts’ Emmanuel Forcier (St. Hyacinthe, Que.), and Virginia’s Daniel Pinero (Toronto, Ont.), respectively. 

Fagnan and Pinero were two of the three Canadians to advance to super regionals last year, joining Stanford University’s Cal Quantrill (Port Hope, Ont.). Virginia made it to the College World Series championship, with Vanderbilt the tournament’s eventual winner.

The country north of the border is guaranteed to be represented at least in the super-regional round this year, but already has an exponentially larger impact than last season, something many of the players take incredible pride in knowing. 

“Playing in the Midwest you see a lot of kids from Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and you’re the token Canadian kid,” Hawkins said. “So you always play with Canada on your back. People expect you to be hard-nosed and tough like a hockey player and you have to roll with it, honestly. I have fun with it. You get made fun of if you play in front of big crowds sometimes, but I eat that kind of stuff up. It’s awesome.”