By Cole Shelton
Canadian Baseball Network
Alberta is known for hockey, oil, the Rocky Mountains and a bunch of other things, but one thing it isn’t well known for is baseball.
Alberta is a hockey province especially Northern Alberta, but quietly the small town in Fort McMurray, has become much more than that. It's a baseball town, not a question about it. But not many people have heard of this program, which is fair, as truthfully not everyone knows about Fort McMurray other than the fires. But this town has moved past that, and now it’s back to playing ball, and for Max Poole, Quinn Tassie, and Justin Breen, it’s on to baseball scholarships in the U.S., and playing at the T12 tournament, with college teams already showing interest in Breen, the youngest of the three.
This program is anchored by these three and a few others who are attracting attention from NCAA schools, and Canadian universities, and because of these three this program has come along way.
“I got here about three years ago, we kind of are a rural area in Fort McMurray, so we have about 500-600 people actively playing at the moment,” said Andrew Swagers the executive director of operations of the Fort McMurray program. “We run a winter development camp, which we call winter ball. It is once a week for every age group, all the way down to T-ball so they each get kind of one practice a week. We also have our high-performance teams, which is mosquito level all the way up to midget, and we also run the Father Mercredi academy, which is the Fort McMurray Catholic school board. It is called the Merc baseball academy, it goes from grade 7 to grade 12.”
Father Merc grad RHP Bailey Nydokus (Elizabeth Metis Settlement, Alta.) is a freshman with the NAIA Waldorf Warriors this spring.
Not many other kids are playing baseball in Fort McMurray, as like mentioned, hockey rules out here. But the success of Poole, Tassie, and Breen has shown kids in Fort McMurray that it is possible to get attention from the NCAA in this small program.
“It is a big deal, for the organization itself, even before myself, the foundation and the legwork was done by people that I replaced,” Swagers said. “I know that they have sent players before, they have been lucky enough to send players to other colleges, and people playing in other colleges in Canada. But I think it is a really good opportunity, because hockey rules the roost, especially in Northern Alberta.
“For us, it is good, because kids can see if I actually commit to something, and trust the process of what we are doing, and obviously, the things we are doing with the younger kids are going to correlate, 100% with the older kids because you have your phases of development.”
Swagers says now there is an opportunity for players to move on to the next level.
“Where 10 years ago, the opportunity wasn’t there as much. Baseball in Fort McMurray is definitely sending more kids on baseball scholarships to the states than any other sport in Fort McMurray,” Swagers said. “We have the two commits already (Max Poole, Quinn Tassie) and have two more seniors who are in talks with schools but haven’t committed.”
Fort McMurray also sent five players with the Milwaukee Brewers scout team in Phoenix, Ariz., while Breen who was the program’s first Tournament 12 player.
“Justin was there for that and is having some looks from some nationally ranked schools, so I think it is important to have those stepping stones so we send players to the states. Last year we sent one, this year we are already at two, next year there are at least four or five who have a realistic shot,” said Swagers.
Obviously, these three players had to put in the work, but all three have grown up playing in this baseball program which has led to Max Poole signing with Mars Hill University in North Carolina, an NCAA D2 school, while Quinn Tassie has signed with Midland University in Nebraska, an NAIA school. And Justin Breen was invited to T12 last year at the Rogers Centre, which is a prestigious tournament designed to showcase Canada's top young prospects.
The hope is with Poole signing with an NCAA school that it will attract more players to this program, but for Poole, it was just an incredible achievement to be able to sign a baseball scholarship, all in thanks to this program.
“They helped out a lot, they taught me the proper throwing programs and stuff to get my arm strength up, and that really led to me getting more interest from the States,” Poole said of what the program did for him. “Then they definitely told me what I needed to do to get those scholarships, get my GPA up, get my SAT scores up, and all those kind of things, and really help me out through that process as well.”
While it is an honour for Poole to be able to know he will play NCAA Div II next season, it is something he has been dreaming about since he was young.
“Definitely cool man,” Poole added of signing. “I had this dream since I was in like Grade 7 that I wanted to come out of this program and get to the States, and get into a good program. It feels amazing for that to come true.”
For Poole as well as the others, this was a sport which they grew to love. They weren’t focusing on making it in hockey like many do in Alberta.
“My dad had me throwing a ball since I could walk," shared Poole. "He put my glove in my hand and I took off with it.”
It isn’t only Poole who is heading down to the States on a baseball scholarship either, as Tassie, his teammate, signed with a school in Nebraska to continue his career and says he has the program to thank for his success. He put in the work, day in and day out, to make himself a better player like the other two.
“Well, they were the ones who got me to write my SAT’s and helped me get it all set up,” Tassie said of what the program did for him to get a scholarship. “I mean they also taught me everything I know about baseball, so that is pretty helpful.”
Just like Poole, Tassie was the talk of the small town when he signed in the States, as it is very impressive for any program to have two players earn a scholarship, let alone a small program where they are only getting 100s of players, not 1,000s like other places.
“It is definitely very exciting for everyone involved,” Tassie added. “Once I got down there, and wrote my name on the papers, everyone was talking about it in town. Everyone was congratulating me and it just feels really good.”
For Tassie, just like Poole, he will head south next fall to continue his baseball career while continuing his education, something that is very cool for both of them. But like mentioned, they both have put in the work and have been stars of this program for years now.
The third and final member of the ‘Big Three’ of the program is Grade 11 student, Justin Breen. Breen is already getting looks from colleges in the States and seems destined to join Poole and Tassie in getting a scholarship to the States.
For Breen, though, he still has a couple years to continue to develop and continue to improve to get some Division 1 schools showing interest, but it started with the being able to participate in the T12 tournament in front of a lot of scouts.
“Oh it was a blast,” Breen said of T12. “I met a lot of new guys, and it was awesome playing at the Rogers Centre too, it was just fun all around.”
Interest in the Grade 11 student from college teams is expected to increase once he writes his SAT’s. Getting college looks alone is quite an accomplishment, but if Breen can show he can do a little more this season, it is not out of the question that some top programs give him a look.
All three players have a bright future ahead of them, all in part to this small baseball program giving them a chance to develop and become the players that they are. The hope for this program in Fort McMurray is that these three will attract younger players to give baseball a shot.
“I think the success of the Blue Jays has a lot to do with it,” Swagers said of what will attract people to start playing ball in Fort McMurray. “When the Blue Jays are doing well, the smaller communities throughout the country prosper from that. Then it is our job to make sure we provide programs and opportunities for kids to not lose the interest. Everybody wants to play ball when the Blue Jays are in the playoffs, but it is not providing an outlet but an opportunity to be able to do that and keep players in the program.
“If you run a good enough program, and you know if you teach people to play, but also to be good humans, and a value system and you hope once you have them that there is no reason for them to go somewhere else to play, or possibly choose another sport all together.”
This program has dealt with a ton of adversity with the Fort McMurray fires and hockey taking kids away. But through it all, this program continues to produce some of the best baseball players in Canada and will continue to do so, as over the next few years the hope is they will have three or more players each year sign scholarships in the States. For this program, it all started with Tassie, Poole, and Breen showing how good this program is, and what players can look like coming out of this program.