By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
KITCHENER _ Amidst what one can only hope to be winters last gasp; as plummeting temperatures, grey skies and harsh winds bring with them the makings of yet another late winter snowstorm, the sounds of summer reverberate throughout Playball Academy’s 23,000 square foot facility in Kitchener, Ont.
Inside, countless young athletes can be found working vigorously in an effort to shake off the rust left behind in the wake of yet another grueling winter layoff.
Among those taking hacks in the cages, throwing pens off the real-dirt mounds or fielding ground balls on the facilities full-sized Astroturf infield, are members of Ontario Nationals squad, knee-deep in another round of off-season workouts.
Fresh off another impressive showing last fall, the program is gearing up for its annual spring training showcase down south. In a few short days, the team bus will depart for Dodgertown, former spring retreat to the likes of Gil Hodges, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson et al.
Those set to make the trip are eager to leave the cold behind.
“The competition in the states, especially in Florida, is always good’ explained right-hander Devlin Jovetic, a fourth year National looking forward to squaring off against some of the Sunshine States top high school programs. “I’m happy that they brought us into this great facility (Playball) for the winter, but I can’t wait to get back out into the heat.”
Like their players, the coaches are also looking forward to the week long trip. Referring to the near 24-hour bus ride as a quality team-building exercise, those who spend countless hours developing the organizations talent see nothing but value in the annual excursion.
“It’s going to be tough, but worth it” explained Jeremy Jayaweera, a former National and one of club’s many dedicated coaches charged with overseeing player development.
“These guys haven’t even been outside yet and, once in Florida, we’ll be practicing in the morning and playing double headers in the afternoon every day for a week.”
With games starting as early as March 13, this trip will represent the clubs first spring training swing since joining the fledgling Canadian Premier Baseball League last July.
Formed in an effort to help further streamline the provinces top amateur youth baseball programs, the CPBL consists of six organizations including the Toronto Mets, the Ontario Blue Jays, the Great Lake Canadians, Team Ontario, Fieldhouse Pirates and the Nationals.
For those involved, an added level of structure is what will separate the CPBL from other amateur circuits.
“The key for the league is to maintain its standings, to have the publicity for its schedule and promote the quality of the play and the quality of its individual players” said Shawn Gillespie, owner and president of the organization. “That was under publicized big time where we were before and it was not anyone’s fault, it’s just that there was no one in place to do so.”
Having teamed with Pointstreak, league officials hope that by having an online database of updated statistical information, coupled with a revamped web site chock full of key information, schedules and feature stories from such influential scribes as Alexis Brudnicki and others, the CPBL will generate the kind of exposure needed expand on the success that each organization has experienced with regards to the development of young Canadian talent.
Talent such as:
_ Current Nats standouts in third sacker Jaxon Valcke, who recently committed to the University of British Columbia.
_ Jovetic, who signed a letter of intent to attend Midland College in Texas last February.
_ Program alumnus Brock Dykxhoorn, a sixth round draft pick by the Houston Astros in 2014 ... to name a few.
In all, the Nationals have fielded over 75 players who have gone on to play collegiality including eight NCAA D1 players, four Canadian National Team members and three Major League draft picks.
“We try to teach kids to act in a professional manner” said Jayaweera. “Once they go to school, we want them to be ready in every aspect.”
The programs success is often accredited to their ability to develop talent at a steady pace, and with additional exposure coming from the new league, coverage via Prep Baseball Report and word of mouth among local area scouts, the Nationals are beginning to establish themselves as a Canadian development powerhouse.
“We’re not trying to make our players all-stars right away” added Jayaweera. “It’s a process, and we know that. We preach development and repetition. You don’t improve by having someone telling toy things. You get good by doing something. “
With a pair of 16U teams in addition to one 18U squad, Nationals coaches are able to guide their talent throughout some of the most pivotal years of their developing careers.
“We know it’s a race against time for some of these kids. They want to go to school or they want to go pro, but we try to establish the fact that it’s not a rush and if you work hard every single day, something’s going to happen for you.”