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Napanee Express bound for Canadian junior softball championship

August 9, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Comfort in one’s surroundings is typically a good precursor of success. A chef who’s in command of his kitchen is apt to create a darn good meal every time.

Success in any realm, however, breeds the expectation of more of the same. Nobody expects the master chef’s souffle to fall.

The Napanee Express is headed back to its kitchen this weekend, and the expectation is that it will, indeed, cook.

Napanee teams have been to five of the last six Canadian under-21 fastball championships, winning five medals. With just one player graduated from the team that was the silver medalist a year ago, Napanee takes with it to Irma, Alta., the relaxed demeanor that comes with familiarity, but also the burden of expectation that comes with repeated success.

The players know that, says Express catcher Cody Brooks, but no one’s expectation is greater than their own.

“You always have to play with pressure,” he said. “You can’t go into a game thinking you’re going to walk all over the other team because that’s when you’ll make a little mistake and things can start going the wrong way. Yes, we are considered one of the favourites this year, but at the same time, whether we’re playing a team that’s ranked 10th or a team that’s ranked first, we have to go out there to win the ball game.

“In our minds we’re always expected to win it,” he said, “but it’s who gets hot. Last year we weren’t expected to go anywhere. We got hot at the right time and almost took it all.”

Brent Mills, who coaches the Express with his father, Roger, and uncle, Greg, has everyone back from last year’s team, with the exception of Curtis Leonard, who was a tournament all-star outfielder at last year’s Canadian championship.

“They’ve all been there before so they know what to expect,” Brent Mills said. “They had a good run last year and they’ve been toward the end of the tournament as midgets, too. They’ll be ready to go and pretty focused, I imagine.

“We’re planning on playing the following Sunday.”

That would mean playing for a medal at a tournament where Mills expects the other two Ontario teams, the Stratford Cubs—they played as Sebringville at the provincial elimination tournament—and the Owen Sound Selects will be contenders as well.

“They’re both very good teams. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Ontario should be competing for three medals at the tournament.”

Mills, fresh from coaching the midget Express to the championship at the western Canada under-18 tournament last weekend, describes the junior team as one with balance—good hitting, power and a deep pitching staff.

Brooks goes his coach one better.

“I would say we have the best arms in Ontario, and probably Canada, this year,” Brooks said. “Brandon Sands likes to go up a lot and he gets a lot of strikeouts. Cole Bolton throws down a lot and he gets us a lot of ground balls. He doesn’t come through with a lot of strikeouts but he wins a lot of ball games.

“Braden Scott is a good strong pitcher, too,” Brooks continued, noting that the fourth man, lefthander Eric Morgan, provides a good alternative.

“When you start with a right-handed pitcher and come in with the lefty halfway through a game, it’s quite a difference,” Brooks said. “There’s not a lot of left-handed pitchers so having one is a pretty key component. Seeing the ball come from the other side takes your mind (a while to adjust).”

Mills said the only thing the team lacks is fleetness afoot, but to address that the Express will be adding Tyson Zehr, a middle infielder and outfielder from Tavistock, and Haaken Zatterberg, a Napanee midget player who is currently playing with Chatsworth at the Canadian midget championship in Gander, NL.

Through the first six games of that tournament, Zatterberg, hitting .391, had stolen 11 bases and scored a team-best eight runs for a team that was 2-4. He stole 10 bases in the first two games, though he had just three base hits.

The other addition to the team is Ty Sebestian. He can play just about any position on the field, including pitch, but mostly he hits. Last year at the Canadian championship, playing for Wiarton, he hit three home runs in the gold-medal game against Napanee.

His team folded, however, and he’s been playing weekends for the Express throughout the season.

Napanee hasn’t faced a lot of junior-age competition. It won all but one game at the elimination tournament and defeated Domville in another tournament. Most recently, at a senior tournament in Ottawa, the Express reached the semifinals. “We were in the thick of it at the end with three very good teams,” Mills said.

At that tournament Napanee hit 13 home runs in five games.

“I don’t expect to live and die with the home run but it’s nice to know that any of them could do it at any time,” Mills said. “They just seem to put a good swing on the ball every time. It’s not like they’re always swinging for home runs … but when you’re focused and ready to hit the ball and you hit it square, you never know.”

Mills also likes his team’s depth — “we’ve got more than one guy who can play at every position, so if somebody gets hurt we don’t really lose a step” — but he wonders about how his players might react to adversity.

“These guys have been very successful, so one of the tough things is if things start going the other way, if we get down, are we (going) to be able to pick ourselves back up?”

He hopes the final of the elimination tournament provides a clue. The undefeated team in the championship game, the Express found itself trailing 7-1. “We still lost the game, but we brought it back to 8-7 and had a guy on base,” Mills said.

When a subsequent game was required in the double-knockout tournament, Napanee won it.

“They do know that they can come back when they get down, but they’re not used to being in that situation,” Mills said, “so just knowing they can (should help) if they get back on their heels.”

Brooks, who hit four home runs in last year’s national championship, hopes for more at his third straight Canadian tournament. This year he played in his 13th Ontario championship event.

“A lot of people are glad to get one,” he said, “but it just always came to us because we always had a well-rounded ball team.”

Nine teams will begin competition Monday in a tournament that is national in name only, with just five provinces represented. There are three teams each from Saskatchewan and Ontario, one each from Newfoundland and Quebec, and the host team from Irma, a community 180 kilometres southeast of Edmonton that, in terms of perennial success, in recent years has been to Alberta softball what Napanee is to the game in Ontario.

The Irma Tigers have been a particular nemesis to Napanee teams, eliminating the Express from the national midget championship in 2011 and beating it twice in 2012. A victory over Irma in the round-robin portion of last year’s Canadian junior was the first for a group of Napanee players who experienced those earlier indignities.

The Express will open this year’s touranment with a Monday morning game against Newfoundland. Napanee will play again Monday night against Owen Sound.

 

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