By CLAUDE SCILLEY
There are some things in Lennox and Addington County on which you can rely when the calendar turns to August: the tomatoes are starting to ripen; it soon will be time to harvest the grain—and sure as the ’coons are getting fat on corn, the junior fastball team from Napanee is getting ready to play for a national championship.
Or, in this case, two teams.
When the Softball Canada junior men’s tournament commences Monday morning at the Fairgrounds complex, two Napanee teams will be in the nine-team field. It will be the sixth time in the last seven years Napanee has been represented at the national junior championship, and there’s more to it than just showing up. In that time, those teams have come home with six medals.
The two teams are both known as Express: Shoeless Joe’s Express, which is there as the host—although by finishing second at the provincial elimination tournament, it would have qualified, anyway—and the Abundant Insulation Express, which earned its ticket by finishing fourth at that same tournament in July.
The teams are about as different as two teams from the same town with the same name can be. The Shoeless Joe’s bunch has been together since they were old enough to know which end of the bat to hold; for many of them this is the fifth straight summer they’ve played for a Canadian championship. They’ve won silver medals at the last two national tournaments, but none of them has won a title, and for most of them this will be their last opportunity to do so.
The Abundant Insulation crew is at the other end of the experience spectrum, the quintessential underdog with all but one player in his first year of junior eligibility and the oldest guy on the team in just his second summer of junior ball.
It will be interesting, indeed, to see where the sympathy of the crowd falls when these two teams play in the round-robin portion of the tournament, at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Here are a few other things you need to know about next week’s event:
The players: The best players under the age of 21 (as of the startof the year) from across the country; not only the best teams, but each team is allowed to supplement its lineup with as many as three players from teams within their province that did not qualify.
Legacy: Napanee has won six Canadian championships, three midget (1982, 1997, 2003) and three junior (1986, 1996, 2010). That 1986 team, known as the Kings, played out of North Fredericksburgh; among the players on that team was Leroy Blugh, who went on to a Hall of Fame career in the Canadian Football League. This will be the 14th time in the last 19 years that a team of Napanee players—for three of those years known as the Roblin Raiders—has played for a national junior championship; only once in that time did a team not qualify to do so (the other four years Napanee did not field a team).
Welcome back: This will be the sixth time Napanee has hosted a Canadian championship tournament, dating to 1982. There have been four midget events, and the juniors were here in 2011.
Gracious hosts: The Express has won at home only once, capturing the midget crown in 1982.
Format: Nine teams will play a round robin Monday through Thursday, each playing twice per day, with the top six teams entering a championship playoff round Friday. The top four teams earn the so-called double life, meaning they have to be beaten twice to be eliminated. The gold medal game is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday.
The facility: One of the finest in the province—how many softball parks have actual dugouts?—the two-diamond park is located at the Napanee Fairgrounds, at the west end of Thomas Street, adjacent to the curling club and old hockey arena. From Kingston, take Hwy. 401 or County Road 2 west to Centre Street. Take the County Road 41 exit south off the 401 and turn right at Thomas (watch for the sign); from downtown (County Road 2 becomes Dundas Street) turn north on Centre Street. Thomas is the second intersection; turn left.
Openers: Napanee Shoeless Joe’s plays its first game against the Saskatoon Bullets at 11:30 a.m. Monday; Abundant Insulation plays its first game at 12:30 against the Saskatoon Diamondbacks. Shoeless Joe’s, as the host team, plays the final game of the day each night, 7:30 on Monday, 7 o’clock Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Key games early: On Monday, Ontario champion New Hamburg will play the defending champion Alberta team at 1:30 p.m., then face Shoeless Joe’s at 7:30, after the conclusion of the 7 o’clock opening ceremony.
Softball’s Roughriders: It’s not enough that both Napanee teams are called ‘Express.’ The Quebec team, from St-Leonard-d’Aston, is also the Express.
National? Really? Yes, it is a certified Canadian championship and, yes, there are teams coming from across the country—almost—but of the nine, four are from Ontario and two are from Saskatchewan. Furthermore, two of the four Ontario teams are from Napanee and both Saskatchewan teams are from Saskatoon. Alberta is represented by the defending champion Irma Tigers, while Newfoundland and Labrador, perennially represented by the St. John’s Kelly’s Pub Canadians, and Quebec have sent provincial champions.
Sadly: Among the no-shows are Nova Scotia, which won the championship when the tournament was held in Napanee in 2011, and British Columbia, not so long ago a national power—particularly when represented by teams from the small Vancouver Island community of Sooke, once a kind of Napanee of the west.
Who do you like? It would be hard to bet against the team from Irma, a tiny—population 450—farming town 170 kilometres southeast of Edmonton. The defending champion Tigers boast seven players who have played for Canada at the last two world junior championships.
Let’s not discount: The New Hamburg Cubs, bolstered by players from Stratford, Owen Sound—and, well, who knows where else—was undefeated in four games at the provincial elimination tournament. They beat the then-sponsorless Napanee team in their first game and then Shoeless Joe’s twice, once in the undefeated game and again in the final. At last year’s elimination they said they were from Sebringville, then they went to the Canadian tournament as Stratford, they were New Hamburg at this year’s provincial and they’re entered here as New Hamburg-Stratford. Wherever they’re from, they’re pretty good.
But can you top this?
No one can match the championship experience of Shoeless Joe’s—and it’s all home grown. For six players—Cole Bolton, Cody Brooks, Taylor Brown, Sloan Creighton, Mike Jordan and Jordan Mills—this will be their fifth straight national tournament since 2011; for Barry Hogeboom and Brett Irwin it’s their fourth; Kyle Copeland and Eric Morgan will each be appearing in his third.
Interestingly: That so-called second Napanee team was the only one to put a scare into the Cubs at the elimination tournament, as New Hamburg needed two runs in the bottom of the seventh to claim a 9-8 win over what is now known as the Abundant Insulation team.
Greg Hamell: A bit of a vagabond—he played for Owen Sound last year, was picked up by Napanee for last year’s Canadian championship, and now plays for New Hamburg—Hammell could well be the best pitcher at the tournament. He picked up all four pitching victories at the elimination, beating Napanee teams three times. He struck out 26 in 20 innings, allowed 10 hits, walked just one and surrendered only one earned run.
Tyler Pauli: New Hamburg’s top offensive threat, Pauli (pronounced PAUL-eye), from Mitchell, Ont., hit .484 at last year’s world junior tournament, and he was 7-for-12 (.583), with four home runs and 10 runs batted in, in four games at July’s elimination tournament.
Southpaws: You don’t see a lot of lefthanded softball pitchers, but Shoeless Joe’s has two of them, Eric Morgan and rookie Kyle Ainslie.
The ‘other’ Ontario team: The Tavistock Athletics finished third at the provincial elimination tournament, with a 3-2 record, eliminating Napanee No.2 8-1 before being eliminated themselves, 8-5, by Shoeless Joe’s in their next game. Tyson Zehr, a middle infielder and outfielder, played with Napanee at the Canadian championship last year. He also played for Canada at the 2014 world junior championship and was named most valuable player at the 2013 national midget tournament.
The ‘other’ Express: Ten players from the Quebec team were members of the Canadian midget championship team of 2013, and three of them played for Canada at the world junior tournament in 2014. This is the third time a team from St-Leonard-d’Aston has appeared at a national championship in Napanee, having previously been here in 1992 and 2002.
From the rock: The Kelly’s Pub team from St. John’s has won three of the last nine Canadian junior championships, most recently in 2012.
Deja-vu: The last time this tournament was played in Napanee, there were also two teams from the home town in it. The North Key Express won the silver medal and Shoeless Joe’s won the bronze.
Mother Nature: Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com) predicts the possibility of a thunderstorm Monday and Tuesday—with a 60 per cent chance of rain on Tuesday—with partly cloudy skies on Wednesday and Thursday (but with low probability of rain), and sunny skies on Friday and Saturday. The site expects high temperatures to be between 22 and 25 degrees, with a low of 13 forecast for Wednesday night, and high UV throughout the week.
Tickets: Weekly passes cost $50, while day passes will be $10 for the preliminary round, and $15 for the playoffs each day Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Children under the age of 12 will be admitted free throughout the tournament.