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Napanee midgets eager for challenge of western Canadian fastball championship

July 31, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

A unique opportunity presented itself last month at the provincial midget elimination tournament, the annual competition to determine which teams would represent the province at the national midget fastball championship.

It’s not necessarily one you’d think a softball team from Napanee would embrace.

The top four teams at the elimination, you see, would get berths at the Canadian tournament in Gander, NL. The fifth-place team could take the opportunity to go to something called the western Canada championship, a bit of a consolation event for the best of the rest.

In Napanee, where teams are perennially successful, and trips to national tournaments in one age group or another are annual rites, you might suspect that anything less than the big top would be an unworthy stage.

“We had that conversation before we went (to the elimination tournament),” Express coach Brent Mills said, “whether we would want to go if we wound up fifth.

“Everyone was up for going to Saskatchewan.”

So, when the Express and Grand Valley ended the tournament tied for fifth, the Napanee crew won the tie-breaking game and the right to board an overnight flight Thursday for the prairies.

The Express will be representing Ontario at the eight-team, four-day tournament, beginning Friday in Battleford.

They’ll be doing so proudly.

“Most of these guys have not been to eastern Canadians, western Canadians or nationals,” Mills said. “I look at it as a great opportunity to travel— most of them haven’t been on a plane — and also a great opportunity to see ball outside of our province.”

It’s an experience he’s thankful to have had as a player, and one he’s happy to share with the boys on this team, a group that narrowly missed earning a national-tournament berth this year — two one-run losses — and last, when the Express gave up two runs late in the game that would have qualified them.

“The first time, I remember you feel kind of like a professional ball player,” said Mills, who debuted at an eastern Canadian championship as a peewee. “You’re just there to play ball. You don’t have to worry about anything else, so you can just relax and have some fun.

“It’s a good bonding experience for the team, as well. It’s not just a short weekend tournament. You’ve got a little more time between games so you can check out some of the things in the host city.”

Mills expects his team will do well in Saskatchewan.

“We lost a close game to put us out of going to nationals and I expect those teams will be very competitive at the national tournament,” he said. “Given that we’ve played some of the best competition in Canada so I think we’ll be ready to play.”

The other seven teams in Battleford are either provincial champions or runners-up.

“I have no idea, as far as where we rank among those teams, because I’ve never seen them play,” Mills said, “but I think we will be ready for whatever competition is out there, having played teams at a high level already.”

Mills says hosting the provincial midget championship tournament on the weekend — something quite distinct from the national-qualifying process — was a good tuneup for his team, even though the Express departed early, after losing two of its three games.

The tournament actually featured two of the traits for which the Napanee team has become noted: The big fade and the big rally.

Against Teeswater, the eventual tournament winner, for instance, Napanee was leading 1-0 going into the fifth inning, with pitcher Kyle Ainsley tossing a one-hitter. An error on a ball hit by the lead-off man led two outs later to five unearned runs and ultimately a 7-1 loss.

“When we’re not ready to play, other teams can take advantage,” Mills said. “We need to cut down on that one mistake that gives the other team a little bit of life, that one mistake that all of a sudden can go the other way.

“When you’ve got (the other team) in a good spot, keep them there.”

Later, against Grand Valley, Napanee trailed 6-0, 9-2 and, going into the bottom of the seventh, 11-6. The Express rallied for four runs and had the tying run on second base before the threat was finally quelled in an 11-10 defeat.

“We’ve been in situations like that before, where we’re down and we need runs and we get the runs we need,” Mills said. “We know that everybody can hit. We know that no matter what the score is, we can always come back.

“That’s a big thing we can take from the weekend. Even though we didn’t end up coming out on top, we know no matter how far we’re down we can always come back.”

Which is why Mills is optimistic.

“We’ve got pretty balanced hitting through the lineup … and we’ve got five kids on the team who can pitch, so we have lots of options there, any one of which I’d be happy to use any time. The fielding has been something we’ve been really working on the last two years and we’ve been very solid in the field this year. If our pitching can keep the ball down and our fielding stays sharp we should be good to go.

“They really want to win and once they get going they can keep the momentum going. They’re very good at staying up when things are (going well). They just need to make sure that we do something (early) to get us up.”

Napanee will open the tournament Friday afternoon against the Fraser Valley Vipers, the reigning under-18 champions from British Columbia. The Express will be back on the field immediately after that game ends to play Pipestone Valley, the Saskatchewan midget B champion and one of two teams from the host province in the draw.

The championship game will be played Monday afternoon.

 

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