* LHP Ben Onyshko (Winnipeg, Man.), 1B Mitch Bigras (Sarnia, Ont.) and 3B Mitch Robinson (Surrey, BC) all graduated from the Canadian Junior National Team to college diamonds and class rooms. Robinson, above, is with the Florida International Panthers. Robinson photos: Alexis Brudnicki. ....
By Alexis Brudnicki Canadian Baseball Network
College is an experience, no matter who you are or how you look at it, and it is at least a little bit different for everyone.
This is a tale of three freshmen, all hailing from north of the border. They are from three different provinces, have varying backgrounds, and have each entered the realm of collegiate baseball in a trio of locations at different Division-I schools, and are now midway through their first seasons.
Mitch Robinson, Ben Onyshko and Mitch Bigras all started the school year in the same place and have since gone in a number of different directions.
They spent the first three weeks of their college baseball careers in Mexico, competing for the last time with the Canadian Junior National Team at the COPABE 18U Pan American Championship. The squad won bronze before being stranded in the foreign country for a few days because of Hurricane Odile, pushing back their arrival dates to their post-secondary institutions and to the teams awaiting them.
FROM TEAM CANADA TO COLLEGE BALL Robinson's final destination after that Team Canada tour was Miami, Fla., home of the Florida International University Panthers. Academically, the time away made for an incredibly hectic schedule for the 6-foot-2, 220-pound third baseman. On the field, FIU head coach Turtle Thomas believes that while Robinson has made up for lost time, what he missed might have helped him with a quicker transition.
"One thing that is a struggle for anybody is missing those first three weeks, where so much of the fundamentals of the game are taught," Thomas said on a visit to Tampa this spring. "During that time he missed some of those fundamentals and that kind of set him back a little bit along the way. He'll get those next fall and everything like that, but he's coming along and doing pretty well. We're proud as can be to have him."
The former member of the Langley Blaze and native of Surrey, BC, is just as proud to be a Panther. He quickly bonded with his teammates and couldn't be more excited for what the squad has in store for the future. Sitting at 13-16 right now, Robinson believes that they have a lot more in the tank and he continues to look forward to getting out on the field every day.
"I really enjoy this group of guys, Robinson said. "We have great team chemistry and that's been one of our strongest parts. Were struggling a little bit right now as a team but we have the talent to go a long way. If we can start putting it together well be good to go.
"Personally, it's obviously a little bit of a jump. It's not high school anymore. I've experienced some fast baseball playing with Team Canada and everything, but it's a lot more day in and day out playing talented teams."
* * * Onyshko set course for DeLand, Fla., after the tournament in Mexico, where he joined the Stetson Hatters four hours down the road from Robinson's Panthers. Having played at a high level of competition with the Junior National Team program, the 18-year-old left-hander admits that he might have thought he was a little more ready for the transition to college ball than he actually was.
"It's definitely an adjustment," said Onyshko in Tampa. "Even though I played internationally and against pros and stuff like that, the coaches here would tell me, 'It's still going to be a step up.' I didn't really believe them at first, but it's a lot more competitive than playing against the minor-league teams when they're just trying to get work in.
"Here it's all about winning [and] that's awesome. It reminds me of Mexico and the last couple of Junior National Team trips where it was really competitive."
Like Robinson, the native of Winnipeg, Man., and graduate of the Vauxhall Baseball Academy program easily became acclimated to his new clubhouse and teammates, making the entire ride a little bit smoother.
"We have a really good group of guys," he said. "They talk about years past when there have been some problems within the inside of the team but this year is really good. It's almost like the Junior National Team, and same with Vauxhall. All the guys have come together really well which is really good and it makes everything easier."
* * * Bigras travelled to Boston College after parting ways with his Team Canada teammates, joining the Eagles at the end of September. The Sarnia, Ont., native's experience with the new group of players is incredibly similar to that of Robinson and Onyshko, and he is also grateful to have landed with a great bunch of players.
"We've got a tight clubhouse here," Bigras said in Northborough, Mass. "I really like the guys. We get along really well together. It's a cool experience ... I've learned a lot from the older guys. They've been here for four years, the seniors, and they show us the way, and the dos and don'ts, and how to be ready every game."
On the field, the 6-foot-5, 195-pound first baseman has also had to adjust to the new speed of the game at the higher level. Bigras believes that his time with Baseball Canada, as well as the Great Lake Canadians program and with the Sarnia Braves before that, helped to ease the transition at least slightly.
"The game is a little faster," he said. "The guys throw a little harder and it gets on you a little quicker. The ball is hit a little harder at you, and there are different things you've got to react to ... the junior team helped to prepare me because that was the best baseball I could play at my age as a high schooler. It was as close as you're going to get to this.
"That was probably one of the biggest things that helped me to get here too, was the Junior National Team and being able to play and getting some recognition in the U.S. and I eventually ended up here."
* * * Robinson echoed the sentiment of Bigras, thankful for everything that Team Canada helped him to achieve, and for how prepared he was coming out of the program.
"It's incredible," Robinson said. "I'm so fortunate to have that experience and to be able to get that exposure, not just for pro teams but for schools and colleges and everything like that. Having the experience of the fast games was big, because a lot of guys don't get that in high school, and if you try to make the jump from high school to here it can be overwhelming. Having that experience and knowing what it's like when the game speeds up and at the next level, it's just huge.
"Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada's director of national teams] and all the coaches do a great job of preparing the kids and giving them the best advice and the best idea of what pro ball is going to be like or what school is going to be like. He's really realistic and helps the guys make the best decision. Those kids are so lucky and I'm very fortunate that I got to be a part of that."
The junior team experience helped Bigras make some next-level adjustments before he headed to Boston, but once he got there he got even more help from former Baseball Canada mainstay Jimmy Van Ostrand, who joined the Eagles coaching staff after eight professional seasons and seven years with the national team.
"I've learned little things that I work with every day," Bigras said. "I focus a lot on my defence and coach [Van Ostrand] has helped me a lot this year with that, as well as with my hitting. It's just small things, to keep up with the high pace that the game brings at this level ... VO is awesome. We bonded right away.
"He's the guy I go to look for when I'm struggling or I need some help, or when I just want to ask him anything. He's always the guy I can ask. I like going to VO for help anytime and he's always welcoming me to ask him anything."
Boston College's Richmond, BC-born volunteer assistant coach has been impressed by the progress Bigras has made and is excited about what more the young player will bring to the table for their team with some more time under his belt.
"We've been working a lot at first base," Van Ostrand said. "On different techniques and being aware of some of the [challenges] of playing the game at a higher level upstairs, as far as knowing situations and what's going to happen and being prepared for that. Then offensively, he's doing a great job. He's come along, he's working hard, and he's going to be a good player and a fun player to watch. He's a lot of fun to work with every day and I enjoy our time together. He's a good one."
* * *
EMBRACING THE CHALLENGE Despite the jump, the competition has been one of the most enjoyable pieces of the college baseball experience for each of the Canadian teenagers.
"It's great getting back into competition," Onyshko said. "It's been a long time since I've really played competitive games. The last time was really with the Junior National Team in Mexico, so it's nice just getting out there and trying to win in a competitive atmosphere."
One of the highlights of a 15-15 season so far for the Hatters' was a four-game spring sweep of Harvard University.
"That was awesome," Onyshko said. "That was huge, especially after we came off of playing Ole Miss and then Miami. We got one win against Ole Miss but it's kind of deflating playing those big teams and losing three out of four. And Harvard wasn't that bad of a team either. They had some good arms and some good players and we just put it all together."
So far for Bigras, a weekend in Baton Rouge amidst a 12-14 season for Boston College has been one of the highlights from an experience standpoint, embracing the atmosphere at Louisiana State University.
"The travelling has been the best part," the 18-year-old said. "We've played at some pretty cool places already this year. It's a good opportunity to play at some big stadiums in front of some big crowds. LSU was really fun.
"It was probably one of the best experiences I've had as a baseball player so far. It was cool. The crowd was screaming and you could hear them all game. It was a big crowd every day when we showed up to the park."
Fitting in on the field hasn't been a problem for any of the former junior team members, but all three are continuing to make the necessary adjustments to the new level of play.
"It's been alright so far," Onyshko said. "It's been getting better over the last couple starts. At first I was kind of struggling to find the strike zone and that's something I'm not really used to, but now I'm starting to get out there and really compete well."
Over his first eight appearances and five starts, the southpaw has posted a 4.66 ERA over 19 1/3 innings with 16 strikeouts. Through 19 games and 16 starts, Robinson is hitting .254/.333/.322 with two doubles, a triple, eight runs and seven RBIs. Bigras is 7-for-31 so far with two doubles, a triple, five runs and three RBIs in 14 games and 11 starts.
Embracing their surroundings and a higher calibre of play on the field, getting used to travelling, playing, and fitting in school at the same time has been a challenge for the young players, and one they are all continually getting better at.
"It's been busy," Bigras said. "The first semester was a little tough for me, being late, but I'm getting by and I've got to improve this semester as well. But also, we've been on the field every day. We've done a good job this year of preparing for every game. I've gotten my chances and my opportunities to show what I can do and I'm trying to take advantage of them because I don't know when the next one is going to be."
Added Robinson: "It's been crazy. You're always busy, you're always tired; you're always on the move. You're practicing six days a week and then on top of that we work out at five-thirty in the morning and then usually we have night class after [and] then you've got to try to squeeze in homework or something in there, studying or reading. It's been a jump, but the baseball's been awesome."
The academic side of the collegiate world was certainly an eye-opener for the players.
"If you're not good with time management, the spring is going to eat you up," Robinson said. "Even the fall was tough and we weren't travelling. Now we're travelling on top of that so it adds to it. I am definitely [getting better at it]. It's not an option. You have to be. You'll get left behind.
"There are less breaks. Days off are rare and you always have something to do. You always have a game to prepare for. Nine innings is a lot of baseball and we;ve played some doubleheaders, so it's busy and it takes a lot of focus."
Added Bigras: "I struggled first semester. I didn't do very well. I need to do really well this semester to pick it up. I was a geoscience major but I'm undeclared right now and I'm probably going to be a communications major. I'm going to take a couple classes in the summer too, and then I'm going to go play in Thunder Bay [for the Border Cats] so that will be fun. It's a good league with a lot of games."
Onyshko has learned a lot just from watching many of the older players around him.
"It reminds me almost of my last year at Vauxhall," he said. "They're really settled with the whole routine here and they're really comfortable with their surroundings and how they go in week in and week out. They're starting to figure out a routine here and that's going to help over the next while."
Robinson believes he has already come a long way in just the short time he's been in Miami, forced into growing up after joining the Panthers.
"You have to mature in a hurry," the 19-year-old infielder said. "Sooner or later you're going to have to mature, and hopefully it's sooner when you come here because you're on your own. There are a lot of bodies here and you're not just a senior in high school anymore, being the big gun.
"You're a freshman now and there are guys three years older than you. They're bigger and stronger so it's definitely a reality check when you realize that there are lots of other guys who can play your position and have bigger bodies than you and are just as talented - if not more talented - than you. It's an eye-opener but it's been awesome."
The learning period will continue for each of the young players, and coach Thomas believes that they will be better for every adjustment they make.
"Every freshman has some trials and tribulations," Thomas said. "Sometimes they do well and sometimes they struggle. Seniors do too, and let's face it, fifth-year guys do too."