By CLAUDE SCILLEY
NAPANEE, Aug. 15—One day, you suppose, the members of the Napanee Shoeless Joe’s Express will look at their bronze medal performance at this year’s Softball Canada junior men’s championship in a broader context.
You can easily imagine that in the fullness of time, winning their third national championship medal in three trips to the big tournament will be appreciated more than it is in the immediate aftermath of their 6-1 loss to the Irma, Alta., Tigers in the penultimate game of this year’s event at the Fairgrounds.
One thing, however, might be a little harder to digest.
Why did it have to be those damn Irma Tigers again?
This particular group of Napanee boys and that bunch of Irma guys are about as familiar with each other as two groups of ball players who live 3,500 kilometres apart can be. This is the fifth year the teams have met at a national championship, and the relationship has been decidedly one-sided.
Irma eliminated the Express from the 2011 Canadian midget tournament, and inflicted another playoff defeat in 2012. When they all graduated to junior in 2013, Napanee won in the preliminary round and the luck of the playoff draw kept them apart, but last year, Irma, then the host team, defeated Napanee not once but twice—once in the preliminary round and again in the championship game. Sunday’s loss to the Tigers was Napanee’s second of this tournament.
Talk about your nemeses.
“It’s been tough for these guys,” Express coach Brent Mills said. “They haven’t had much success against them over the years, which is tough, given that they’ve been a good team for so long and haven’t been able to get by that one team.”
It could be said that Napanee played its best ball on the final two days of the tournament. After a painful 12-5 mercy rule-shortened defeat in the playoff opener Friday night, the Express, who finished the week-long event 7-5, won twice Saturday and played not a bad ball game at all in defeat Sunday. After a defensive disaster against the Stratford-New Hamburg Cubs Friday, the Express committed just one error in its final three games. “We just couldn’t get our bats going,” Mills lamented.
“We played well defensively. We knew they were going to get their hits but they strung all theirs together, where we’d get hits one at a time and not put them together to score runs.”
On a clear, hot, muggy day, Irma had 10 hits, four of them in the decisive four-run second inning. Napanee had five hits, but never more than one in an inning.
Sunday’s game was likely the last at the national competitive level for a group of players who had become accustomed to playing at one. Six members of the Express were playing in their fifth Canadian championship tournament in five years; four others had been to at least three in that time.
“It’s a great group of guys,” Mills said. “They’re great ball players. They love to play the game and they play it hard. This week, they came together really well; picked each other up, picked me up, and played the game really well.
“Right now they’re disappointed but they’re still pretty positive, I guess. It’s tough to lose a game like that, when you’re so close to getting back to that final game. Not quite getting there is disappointing for them but I think they’ll look back and (realize) they’ve played ball for 15 years, some of them, and they’ve been a really successful group. When you play ball with a group of guys like that, you make friends and relationships that will last the rest of your life.
“Hopefully they can take the successes they’ve had and look back at it as being a really positive experience, playing ball for Napanee, playing at that level for so long.”
In Sunday’s game, four runs in the bottom of the third inning broke a 1-1 tie. One man was out and the bases were loaded when Taylor Schubada doubled to the fence in left-centre field, driving two men home. The next batter, Cody Anthony, drove in two more runs with a single.
Napanee got its run in the top of the third, when Cole Bolton tripled. He scored on a sacrifice fly by Josh Maguire, briefly tying the score 1-1, but the Express never threatened after that.
Riley King, the No. 9 batter in the Tigers’ order, ended scoring when he led off the fourth inning with a home run over the fence in right field.
From that point, Irma pitcher Carson Soucy was in command. He retired 14 of the next 17 batters he faced, including the last six in a row, and he allowed just one Napanee runner to get as far as second base.
Soucy struck out eight, seven of them in the last four innings.
Napanee was unable to score, despite putting the lead-off man on base in both the fifth and sixth innings.
Irma had 10 hits against two Express pitchers, three of them doubles by Schubada, the national junior team catcher. In addition to his two RBI, he scored two runs. Napanee managed just five hits, four of them singles, two of them by Taylor Brown.
Bolton, the Napanee starter, surrendered seven hits in three innings before he gave way to Kyle Ainslie. After the home run to King, he allowed just three men to reach base.
Both teams played error-free ball.
The medal was the seventh by a Napanee team at a Canadian junior championship in the last seven years. None of them has been gold, however, since 2010.
It’s a quirk of Softball Canada championships that nobody wins the brone or silver medals. The schedule leaves three teams alive going into the final day of play, which means the worst any of them can do is leave with the bronze, which goes to the loser of the day’s first game. The winner of that game goes to the final game, where the losers receive the silver medals.
In the chanmpionship game, Irma scored in each of the first three innings, and led 3-1 going into the bottom of the third, when Stratford erupted for four runs. Three runs in the sixth secured the win and pitcher Greg Hammell, 6-0 for the tournament, retired the Tigers in order in the seventh.
Hammell, who played last year with Napanee at the Canadian championship, was 2-for-3 in the final game, with two runs scored. He allowed seven hits and struck out eight.
In the playoff round, Hammell won all three of his team’s games, and he hit .500.
In the pivotal third inning Sunday, Soucy, throwing back-to-back games for Irma, hit two batters around a triple by Tyler Pauli. Steve Lyons then delivered a run-scoring single, Derek Elliot belted an RBI double and the final Stratford run of the inning scored on a sacrifice fly.
Stratford, the Ontario champion, was dominant. Undefeated in 11 games, the Cubs outscored their opponents 100-33, six times ending games early by the mercy rule.
In 68 innings, the Cubs made just four errors in the field.
Napanee Shoeless Joe’s 001 000 0 — 1 5 0
Alberta 014 100 x — 6 10 0
Cole Bolton (L,4-3), Kyle Ainslie (4) and Cody Brooks; Carson Soucy (W,6-1) and Taylor Schubada. HR: Alta—Riley King (1).
Alberta 111 000 0 — 3 7 0
Ontario 104 003 x — 8 11 1
Carson Soucy (L,6-2) and Taylor Schubada; Greg Hammell (W,6-0) and Jared Wishar.