By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
OKOTOKS _ Jacob Libbus and Tyler McWillie are teammates on and off the ice.
RHP McWillie (Watrous, Sask.) can be found on the mound peering for the signal from C Libbus (Turner Valley, Alta.) during the spring.
And during winter months Libbus throws skip rocks for the his rink which also includes Riley Helston (Calgary, Alta.) Pacen Anderson (Black Diamond, Alta.) and McWillie.
The Libbus rink advanced to the U-18 men’s Southern Alberta playdowns in Lethbridge playing four games and losing this weekend to Cole Adams and his North Hill Country Club rink from Calgary, who grabbed the first qualifying spot. Yet, the Libbus rink grabbed the other spot to advance to the Alberta final and will compete to represent the province at the 18U nationals in New Brunswick.
A year ago the same foursome advanced at the districts in Airdrie, won at Cochrane and lost a 5-4 decision to Edmonton’s Ryan Jacques by an inch in the final of the provincials at Lacombe.
And last winter during the U21 southern playdowns they were leading going into the ninth. No one wants to lose late, no matter the sport, yet what made matters worse on the drive home a year ago was that Libbus burned a rock in the final game “when the ice lost its pebble and the rock the light.” It was a normal takeout and Libbus quickly told the other rink so that the rock was removed from play. In Libbus’ mind he thought it might have cost them the game. But if you know curling one shot does not cost you the game.
McWillie remembers details of the U21 game: “we gave up three when we were up one in the ninth, then they ran us out of rocks.” But in the end ... it was a loss. Curling out of the Oil Fields curling club they are coached by Mickey Pendergast, Brad McInnis and Mike Libbus. They have not asked pitching coach Jeff Duda for any help on the proper rangle on the double-raise, take-out and roll.
There are a lot of similarities between the strategy which goes into setting up an end -- whether a rink by trying to steal, or build a big end -- or a hitter. Libbus, who throws last rocks, does not handle the strategy as Helston calls the game from the house when the rest of the rink throws. Yet the catcher turned curler knows which corner guard is one to worry about.
“As a skip you have to know the game, as a catcher you have to recognize a front-foot hitter who is lunging and know to throw him something off speed,” Libbus said at the Dawgs 10th annual banquet at the Foothills Centennial Centre.
“You need to put a rock in the precise spot and sometimes you need to get a fastball in the right spot, say inside, as opposed to down the middle.”
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On the diamond McWillie’s best was pitching a no-hitter for the Humbolt Dodgers -- home of the Humboldt Junior as Foster Hewitt used to say when Glenn Hall tended goal for the Chicago Black Hawks -- in a 10-0 win over the Unity Cardinals at the Western Canadian bantam championships.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound McWillie is part of the Saskatchewan renaissance dating back to the days of Terry Puhl, Erwin Doerksen, Jim Baba and the late Dave Shury. Saskatchewan has won Tournament 12, enjoyed success at the Canada Cup -- a silver in 2015 and a gold in 2016 -- earned silver at the Western Canada Summer Games in 2015, as well as turning on TV to see LHP Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.) and RP Dustin Molleken (Regina, Sask.) pitch in the majors. Indoor facilities have allowed players to get more reps and the province is providing more exposure and opportunities.
Pitching for Dawgs coach Allen Cox, McWillie worked 2 1/3 innings allowing one unearned run two hits and fanning two against the Fort Wayne Diamondbacks at Indianapolis. And he pitched four hitless inning against the Midland Redskins at the 16U at Fort Myers showcase.
Wait a second ... you pitched four scoreless against the Midland Redskins? On a bad day they would never be mistaken for the Unity Cardinals.
“Allen told me after the game that they were pretty good,” said McWillie with almost a “gee willikers” approach.
Formed by Joe Hayden Jr., in 1966, Midland has risen to become one the best amateur programs in the country, producing Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, 13 Connie Mack championships, 76 major leaguers, 46 first-round draft picks and 545 Division 1 players. It’s too early to tell where Midland players will go come draft time, but for a young arm from Watrous (Pop: 1,857). it was a good day on the mound.
McWillie walked three and struck out eight in his four scoreless a 7-2 win.
“Matt Lloyd was probably the last guy to dominate on the mound like that or maybe Zach Demchenko who threw a no-hitter in the Academy World Series last year against the Brunswick Academy (Conn.),” said Cox. “He showed he was the real deal. He was 88 MPH, showed a plus (slider, change). The best part of it was he had no idea what a program he was pitching against.”
Lloyd (Calgary, Alta.) is in his first year at Indiana, while Demchenko (Saskatoon, Sask.) is with Northeastern Junior College. McWillie, who hopes to attend Ohio State, was clocked at 88 MPH in the spring, but when school broke in the summer his velocity fell to 85 MPH.
“Well, it was probably my throwing program, it decreased in the summer,” said McWhillie.
“And whose fault is that?” said the big-city reporter thinking he would teach the young pup a lesson. ... well it turned out it was no one’s fault. Life happens. McWillie didn’t throw as much due to the fact he had headed home to his family’s 2,200 acre farm where they raise cattle and grow grain.
McWillie was on the radar of the Canadian Junior National Team until the drop in velocity.
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Libbus made memories on the diamond, but one of the best came in 2015. The Dawgs peewees won the Alberta title in the morning in St. Albert. Then as Libbus and the rest of the bantam Dawgs were about to play in the final, they sat in their dugout to watch the midget rally from behind.
“And then Clayton Keyes hit a walk-off homer to win it and we were all going crazy in our dugout,” Libbus said. “The other team must have been wondering what was going on, but we were so happy for their team.”
And then the Dawgs tried to make it three provincial titles in the same day with an 11-1 win over Spruce Grove.
From a personal aspect one of Libbus’s greatest memories came against the St. Albert Cardinals when he led off with a homer. Second time up hit a ball home run distance but about three feet foul and then hit a run-scoring single to right. His next at-bat was interesting. Batting with a man on third the opposing dugout flashed the sign for the intentional walk. But the second pitch went to the screen allowing the man to score from third and changing the situation.
New orders came from the dugout “go get him, pitch to him.” Libbus hit his second homer. He hit two doubles, a triple and threw out two base runners in the 11-1 win over St Albert. The 5-foot-8, 170 pouner finished the year for the 50-10 Dawgs, batting .424 with 21 doubles, two triples, five homers and knocking in 51 runs.
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So are you ready for the rip on curling Libbus and McWillie are asked.
“Sure go ahead,” Libbus says, as if he has heard them all.
There is no knock on curling. Not from me.
I tell them both how in my opinion it is the second best game to baseball due to the strategy involved and how my father curled in the 1960 Brier for Jake Edwards and they beat the legendary Ernie Richardson rink from Saskatchewan.
“The Richardsons?” McWillie asked.
I told him he’d best crank up the Google machine and find out or he might not be allowed into a curling rink in Saskatchewan for not knowing who the Richardsons were: Ernie along with brother Garnet and cousins Arnold and Wes. Richardson’s rink won the Canadian title four times in five years and won four World championships. Richardson was presented the Order of Canada in 1978. The rink was elected to the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, Canada’s Sports Hall, Canadian Curling Hall and the World Curling Federation Hall. Also known as Sam, Wes became an after-dinner speaker who ranked with the likes of Bobby Hull, Jake Dunlop, Hugh Riopelle and Jack Donohue.
I’d heard the zings about curling from KCVI to Ottawa to the Blue Jays clubhouse. Like when reliever Jim Acker would ask "what kind of a silly game was that on TV where a guy throws some concrete down the ice and then two guys sweep or shovel snow in front of the rock to slow it down.”
Whether it is finding the house or finding the plate, the Libbus-McWillie combination works.