By CLAUDE SCILLEY
NAPANEE, July 2—As you approach the ball field at North Fredericksburgh, you see a group of players taking batting practice. To the side, pitchers are getting their work in.
Coach Brent Mills is nowhere to be seen. He’s on the infield of an adjacent diamond, working with another group of Napanee Express players.
There’s a pragmatic element to splitting the team into groups. “Sometimes practice can drag on,” Mills says. “Two diamonds keeps everybody going; they know we’re not going to be here all night.”
Still, to allow his players to practise independently, on the eve of the Ontario Amateur Softball Association junior elimination tournament, displays a certain amount of trust that his players will do the requisite work without the customary supervision.
For Mills, it’s no big deal.
“They’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said. “They’re pretty focused. They know what they need to do; it’s just (a matter) of coming out and doing it, going about our business and getting out of here.”
What this group of players has been doing for a long time is winning. Most of the group remains from the team that won the elimination tournament last year, and many of them have been silver medalists at the last two Canadian championships. Of the 14 members of the team, three are first-year juniors, one is in his second year and the rest are in their third—and final—season of junior fastball.
Which is, by the way, why there are two Napanee teams at this weekend’s tournament in Owen Sound, where 20 per cent of the 10-team draw will be known as Express. Besides Mills’ team, the Shoeless Joe’s Express, there’s the sponsor-free Express, a team that is as green as the other team is experienced.
Coached by a group led by Al Fenwick, the plain old regular Express is composed of most of the Napanee players who won the western Canadian midget tournament last year, supplemented by a solitary second-year junior and two midget-age players. On the tournament draw, where there’s no room for subtlety, they’re known as Napanee 2.
It’s an underdog’s mantle the team wears proudly,
“We’ve got everything to gain, nothing to lose,” Fenwick said.
The reason for fielding two junior teams is simple. Since players have three years of junior eligibility—but only two for the younger age groups—there’s a logjam at the top of the seniority spectrum created by a glut of final-year juniors.
“The team that was in midget last year was mostly last-year midget guys,” Mills said. “With them coming up, there wouldn’t have been enough room (on one team). There would have been a lot of kids not playing ball this year, so we decided to have two teams to fill that need.”
“It was either that,” Fenwick said, “or have one team, and then what do you with the other kids? If you have 19 or 20 players total, you pick nine or 10, what do the others do? They can’t sit out for a year.
“That was the big thing. We said let’s keep the boys playing because when this year is over and those 10 (third-year junior) guys are gone, you still need a junior team (next year), right?”
In 2011, the last time Napanee hosted a Canadian championship, there were actually two local teams were in the field. That was because Napanee won the Canadian title in 2010 and got automatic entry as defending champion; the other team, therefore, was admitted as the host team.
The tournament is back in Napanee this year but this time, the host team had to be declared before the provincial tournament and, well, it wasn’t going to be Napanee 2.
One person who nonetheless isn’t about to dismiss the possibility of both teams being among the four to emerge from this weekend’s tournament with a berth in the Canadian championship is Mills, who coached most of the players on the “other” Napanee team as midgets last year.
As he lists New Hamburg—“they loaded up with guys from Stratford and Owen Sound”—Tavistock, Oshawa and Owen Sound—“they’ll still be tough”—Mills includes the other Napanee team among those with which opponents will need to reckon. “I expect them to be able to surprise some people as well.”
Fenwick, whose team has won two of three games this spring against the Quebec provincial junior team, won’t disagree.
“If everybody shows up to play we can be really strong,” he said. “We have a good opportunity to do well this weekend but everybody has to show up and play, have one of those Calgary Flames weekends.
“I’ve seen it in them. If the boys want to come and play ball they can. If they get down, they seem to get down, but if they put 110 per cent into it, we’ll be all right. We have pitchers who have thrown well. Batting-wise, we’re all right.”
Alex Douglas and Luke Severson have pitched well of late, Fenwick said, and first baseman Marcus Rice “has been hitting the ball well.”
The Napanee teams have met twice this year, with Shoeless Joe’s prevailing both times by three and four runs. “It’s not as if they’re blowing us out of the water,” Fenwick said, “but, tournament-wise, I don’t know if I’d want to see them up there.”
The Shoeless Joe’s team has been to three men’s tournaments this year, and played on Sunday in all three, losing each time in the semifinals. “The calibre of ball in all the tournaments was good and we played pretty well,” Mills said. “We’ve got some things we can improve on but overall it’s been really positive.”
Mills isn’t concerned that having already gained a berth in the Canadian championship as host will dull the competitive edge of his players.
“It doesn’t really change our approach to the tournament, given that it is the provincials. We won the junior provincials last year for the first time in a long time. Going into the tournament I don’t expect the boys to hold anything back. We’ll play it the same way we would if we had to qualify.
“It’s an honour to win the eliminations and be considered the best in the province.”
There’s also the practical element of having the better choice of players to add for the national championship the higher a team finishes—“it’s a better opportunity to improve the team”—but Mills says that’s secondary.
“It’s a real big pride thing for these guys,” he said. “Most of these guys have been the best in their age group for a long time. I don’t expect them to take a step back in their last year. They’re ready to go. They love to play and they love to compete so I don’t think there will be any problems there.
“We’ve been playing for a while now and the closer we get to the (tournament) the more focused they’ve been. Everybody’s putting themselves into their roles and they’re ready to go. It should be a good weekend.”
Shoeless Joe’s graduated Ty Sebastian—“probably the best player in the country last year,” Mills says—Jarrett Williams and pitchers Braden Scott and Brandon Sands.
Cole Bolton returns to anchor a pitching staff of four, consisting of two righthanders and two lefties. Among the latter, first-year junior Kyle Ainslie “is throwing really well this year; has made a big impact for us,” Mills said.
The regular Express will begin play in the true double-knockout tournament Friday night against the Saugeen A’s, with the winner advancing to face New Hamburg Saturday morning. Shoeless Joe’s will open Saturday morning at 10, against the winner of Friday’s game between Chatsworth, a team comprising players who went to the national midget championship a year ago, and Innerkip.
Games will be played all day Saturday, with the undefeated game at 8 o’clock Saturday night. The championship game is scheduled at 2 p.m. Sunday, to be followed with an if-necessary game at 4, if neither finalist has lost two games.