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Napanee seeks national junior fastball title

August 2, 2013

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

It happens so often, it long ago stopped being a big deal when a softball team from Napanee plays in a national championship tournament.

At least, so you’d think.

It just isn’t so, insists the man who will be taking the latest version of the junior Express to the national under-21 gathering next week in Owen Sound.

“I don’t think it ever gets old,” coach Ryan Sharpe said. “It’s a special week. It’s a week where kids can pretty much act like professional ball players. We’re planning to do batting practice every morning before our first game, have team dinners, go to the ballpark as a group to watch other games.

“We’re going to play fastball for seven days straight. You can’t really be bored by that.”

When it comes to softball success, few towns in the land belong in the same conversation as Napanee. The midget Express has been to the national championship 10 times in the last 13 years. The juniors have won four national medals in the last four years, including gold in 2010 and silver and bronze — yes, Napanee was so good it had two teams in the national tournament — in 2011.

You get the idea.

With such frequent success, you might suspect the thrill diminishes with each subsequent trip to the big show. Again, Sharpe said, that’s just how wrong a person can be.

“Every year is a different challenge,” he explained. “Some years there are more teams than others, some years you don’t know about some of the out-of-province teams coming to the tournament.

“(Getting to nationals) is a goal that you set at the start of the year that you want to accomplish. You want to get there and do the best you can. There’s always excitement that comes with it. It would never get old for me.”

Sharpe pitched in the national midget tournament of 2002, and has been to half a dozen other national or eastern Canadian championships as a player or coach. Like most of the players, he and his fellow coaches — Craig McGarvey, Cale Millen, Luke McDonald and Chris Brown — have oodles of experience at this level, the benefits of which, Sharpe believes, are not to be discounted.

“It’s a long week,” Sharpe said. “It’s a lot of games. It’s eight games in four days (in the preliminary round) and you’re always going to hit the bumps in the road so the more times that you can experience that, the easier it becomes the next time you go.

“As coaches, there hasn’t been too much that we haven’t been through at the national level. We’ve all played at home, we’ve been 8-0 and 7-1 in the round robin and didn’t fare so well in the playoff round, or snuck in the back door to the playoff round and ended up medalling, so we bring quite a bit of experience to the table as well.”

The Express played last weekend in an intermediate tournament in Ottawa, winning once and tying once in four games “against some pretty good intermediate teams.”

“We were pretty pleased with that,” Sharpe said.

Sharpe expects his team’s success this week will largely be determined by its ability to hit the ball.

“Offensively,” he said, “we’re very talented. When we get on a roll, it’s usually (due to) our offence. We can score runs and we hit a few home runs. We hit a lot of home runs at the eliminations this year.

“If our bats are going, we’re good.”

That would describe succinctly Napanee’s performance at the provincial tournament where the Express gained its berth at the Canadian championship by going 6-2: Its first loss was 3-2 to Keady, host of next week’s event. In the other seven games Napanee averaged 8.7 runs per game.

The all right-handed Napanee pitching staff — Cole Bolton, a graduate of last year’s national midget bronze medalist from Flinton, Brandon Sands of Battersea and Braden Scott of Napanee, supplemented by Owen Sound pickup Greg Hammell — will be at its best if it’s getting ground-ball outs, Sharpe said.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re not trying to strike everybody out, but getting ground balls, because our defence is really solid,” he said.

“If we’re focused on hitting line drives and hitting singles and focused on the defensive side of things, we should have success.”

In addition to Hammell, Napanee has added two other players from Owen Sound — catcher Craig Lyons and middle infielder Brett Hall. “All of them are very good sticks, they hit 3-4-6 in the Owen Sound lineup,” Sharpe said. “We’re very happy to have them. They played with us last weekend and they fit in well with our group.

“They give us a little bit of depth that you always need at this tournament because you’ve got to play so many games.”

Napanee is one of four Ontario teams at the nine-team competition, which to a degree is a national championship in name only. Only Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland also have teams at the event.

Wiarton, which defeated Napanee 9-8 in the final of the Ontario elimination tournament, Stratford and Keady are the others from the host province. The Express beat Stratford 8-1 in the penultimate game at the elimination, and split there with Keady, winning 11-5 after the 3-2 loss.

Napanee will open the tournament Monday morning at 10 o’clock with a game against Newfoundland. Monday night the Express will face a long-time nemesis from Irma, Alta.

Two years ago, the Tigers ousted Napanee from the national midget championship in the first playoff game. Last year, Irma beat Napanee twice en route to winning the national midget championship.

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