By C.J. Pentland
Canadian Baseball Network
New coaches, new facilities, new starters – yet the same focused optimism remains for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds.
For the first time since the program’s resurrection in 1997, the T-Birds start a season with someone other than Terry McKaig at the helm. For the past 18 seasons, the former national team outfielder built UBC into Canada’s top university baseball program, guiding the ‘Birds to over 500 wins, winning four Coach of the Year awards, and developing 20 MLB draft picks.
Yet after last year he opted to move into the newly created role of director of baseball at UBC to help lead the ‘Birds into a new era.
In steps Chris Pritchett, the former major leaguer who spent the last four seasons as an international scout for the Boston Red Sox. Pritchett previously served as hitting coach for the Vancouver Canadians – a team which he played for from 1996-98 when the C’s were at the triple-A level – but this marks the first time he’s had the role of head coach.
Shawn Bowman, former 12th round pick of the New York Mets in 2002, who spent 10 years in the minors, joins as an assistant coach, adding even more years of pro experience to the squad.
The two take over a younger roster that lost the majority of last year’s lineup to eligibility, but from the perspective of pitcher Curtis Taylor, the lineup hasn’t missed a beat.
Two veteran bats still remain in the heart of the lineup as anchors: outfielder Tyler Enns, who hit .304 last season, and Bruce Yari, who posted a .514 slugging percentage in 2015 and who Taylor calls “locked in;” the first baseman hit the first two pitches he saw last weekend for a home run and a double in the gap.
“Pritch and Bow have instilled a routine, and each hitter has specific drills that they do daily to work on some holes they have in their swing,” said Taylor. “It just seems like a more polished and fine-tuned routine compared to last year – it’s very individualized.”
On the pitching side, the hurlers have already shown they can overpower opposing hitters. Three ‘Birds hit 93 MPH last weekend: Tyler Gillies hit 93, Alex Webb touched 94, and Taylor got up to 95. Pitching coach Wayne Corness has the pitchers on the Driveline weighted ball program, which has helped increase velocity, but the success during the first weekend of the season also stemmed from filling up the strike zone.
Over their four games in Idaho – three wins and the only loss coming against the defending champs Lewis & Clark State Warriors – UBC allowed 12 total runs while striking out 34 and walking just 12.
“These are guys that have proven they can pitch and get outs at this level, and it’s very comforting to know that, when they take the mound, we know that we’re going to be in games,” said Pritchett to UBC Athletics before the season. “It takes a little pressure off of the offense, but also, we’re looking for leadership from them. We expect them to take the ball and do well every time out, and so far, it’s been going well.
“They’ve done really well in training and back in the fall, and we expect that to continue.”
Taylor, Webb, Jeremy Newton, and Connor Noble form the rotation for 2016, with Gillies inheriting the closer role after sharing the duties with Taylor last season. Plenty of eyes will be on the hurlers, as Webb will look to improve his draft stock after being taken in the 36th round by San Diego last season, while Taylor has already drawn out flocks of scouts. The tall righty had already talked to 28 of the 30 teams before the season started, and during his first outing he pitched in front of 25 to 30 scouts – a bit of an overwhelming experience at first, but something he’s getting used to as he enters his draft year.
The entire team also reaped the benefit of having the program’s most successful alumnus visit to talk about baseball at the university level. Jeff Francis came to the campus in January as part of the opening of the team’s new training facility – one that provides a significant training advantage during Vancouver’s wet winters – and the lefty pitcher and science student passed along wisdom on how to succeed both on and off the field.
“He mainly spoke to the fact of how he tried to balance school and baseball and have a little bit of a social life on the side, and that he understands what we’re going through and it’s not easy,” said Taylor. “And especially with him all the draft attention he was getting, but you’ve just got to focus and manage things and schedule out what you’re going to do at any given time of the day, so to make sure that there’s no wasted time and you get all your work done on and off the field. Was really helpful.”
Taylor describes that focus as the defining characteristic of this season’s T-Birds team. UBC enters each season with the goal of making it to the NAIA World Series, yet they’ve still yet to make it since 2006 when they finished fourth. The past few seasons have brought relative postseason success, with a division title and runs to the NAIA championship opening round, but the ‘Birds have continued to fall just short of reaching that goal. Yet the optimism remains, and the horizon remains bright for this new era of UBC baseball.
“We’re very focused with our approach,” said Taylor. “There’s a good sense of camaraderie among the boys, but there’s not a lot of messing around. It’s a really focused group every day at practice day in and day out – we get in there, we lock in, we get our work done, and we get out, and every day at the field it looks the same way with our approaches.
“We’ve got a really strong, focused group and we’ve got a real strong shot at making the World Series, for sure.”