By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
It’s almost time for the regular season to begin, and the Ontario Nationals are more ready than they ever have been before.
Preparing for the inaugural Canadian Premier Baseball League season – where the Nationals programs will match up against teams from the Fieldhouse Pirates, Toronto Mets, Ontario Blue Jays, Great Lake Canadians, Ontario Nationals and Team Ontario – the Nats took all three of their squads to Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, to get outside for the first time this year and face some tough competition.
The trio of squads was split into just two for the week, with Ontario’s second 16-and-under team dividing players onto either the other squad at the same age level, or sending them to the 18-and-under team. Over the duration of the Nationals visit to the sunshine state, the older group went 2-6 with their younger counterparts going 7-3.
They squared off against multiple American high schools, a team from west Toronto, the Etobicoke Rangers, Ottawa Knights, and multiple squads from the Ontario Blue Jays program, getting an early glance at their upcoming CPBL competition.
“We’re really looking forward to playing in the CPBL,” Nationals coach Jeremy Jayaweera said. “Our teams saw the Ontario Blue Jays down there, but to play here on an actual schedule and to know what they’re up against is going to be much better.
“The league has the top teams in the province, and the top players. And to be able to go every weekend and play those top teams and players, you know you can’t take a day or an inning off, and it will really help all of our teams.
“And it will be easier for our players now. Most of the younger guys haven’t played in a league like this before. Florida opened their eyes, but they’re ready now. The pre-season kickoff tournament [April 22 to 24] will give us even more looks and help them become even more ready.”
Jayaweera was happy with the calibre of competition his program’s teams faced throughout their time in Dodgertown, noting that while some of their pitchers struggled to find the strike zone, it helped them shake off the rust of the winter and prepare for the next step in the season.
For the 18-and-under squad, right-hander Daniel Weagle (Brantford) stood out among his peers with three impressive outings for the Nats, getting both of the team’s wins. His teammate and utility player Andy Leader (Kitchener) – committed to Colby Community College in Kansas – led the charge offensively as an outfielder, notching hits in more than half of his at-bats on the tour.
Third baseman Jaxon Valcke, a St. Marys native committed to the University of British Columbia, was also productive for his squad, and outfielder Riley Perks (Waterdown) hit a couple of balls out of the park during the trip. Outfielder Rhys Cornell (Sheffield) added a home run of his own, while Colton Fountain (Stratford) provided stability both behind and at the dish. Infielder Johnny Guinta (Milton) improved throughout the week and really impressed by the end.
Ontario’s 16-and-under team notched three of its seven victories in extra innings, playing in some tight affairs and beating its CPBL opponents in the Ontario Blue Jays two of three times they squared off. Right-handed hurlers Jacob Kush (Ottawa) and Owen Mitchell (Kitchener) looked ready for the year during their first time outside, impressing on the mound.
Offensively, the Nationals were led by centre fielder Ethan Baptie of Kitchener, with Woodstock catcher Jacob VanBoekel adding four triples through the week, and outfielder Tate Taylor (Cambridge) providing stability in the lineup and hitting for power during the entire trip.
“The trip was awesome,” Jayaweera said. “After being indoors for so long, they were eager to get outside, and on the way there, they stopped and had a couple of workouts. They were shaky, but to see the ball coming off the bats live and read the ball and be on the field, our defensive workouts helped a lot.
“For the pitchers to see hitters and get their feet wet was great. We didn’t push guys, for the most part each pitcher got three outings and had a chance to work on his pitches. It was very helpful to the coaching staff, giving us an idea of what to improve on.
“We stressed having quality at-bats to the hitters, and they weren’t seeing the ball well at the beginning of the trip. We found out what they needed to work on at home for the couple of weeks between the trip and the CPBL season.”