If you’re not up at the lake or out on the golf course this weekend, Simplot Millennium Park will be the place to be.
Some of the most talented young baseball players on the Prairies will be in Brandon to compete in the annual UCT Canada Day Classic, a veritable smorgasbord of baseball featuring 25 teams from Manitoba and Saskatchewan playing a total of 50 games, starting this evening.
For Brandon Minor Baseball, it’s one of the highlights of the year, a showcase for the top AAA level players in the city, and a preview of what to expect in the upcoming provincial championships.
“These are the best players in the Prairies in their age group,” said local minor baseball president Faron Asham, who will also guide the provincial 17-and-under team at nationals this year. “And being a AAA tournament across the board, you are going to see the future stars, the future Team Manitoba players, right in your own back yard. Right from 12 years of age up to 15 is the age range and these are the most talented players in Western Canada.”
The tournament will feature Brandon Knights teams in both the bantam and peewee age groups, with Westman also represented by Midwest and Oildome squads. Midwest, in fact, won the 2011 Peewee AAA provincial title, while the defending Bantam AAA provincial champion Winnipeg South Chiefs will also be here this weekend.
The championship finals are slated for Monday afternoon, with Asham hoping his Brandon teams can challenge for titles.
“Historically we have had some nice crowds for the finals, especially when our local teams have been in them, and that’s been quite often, actually,” Asham said, noting that admission is free all weekend. “So we’re hoping for repeat performances from both our peewee and bantam Knights and hopefully we get some local supporters to come out and cheer them on.”
Interestingly, a number of players on this year’s bantam Knights team also turned some heads in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League bantam draft earlier this month.
A whopping 10 members — half the team — of the Brandon A & W Bantam AA Wheat Kings were picked by MJHL clubs.
Captain James Shearer (drafted second overall by the Steinbach Pistons) and Jordan Stallard (picked fourth by the Swan Valley Stampeders) led the way, followed by Brayden Compton (Portage Terriers, Round 2), Mitchell Lyall (Dauphin Kings, Round 2), Tyson Verhelst (Neepawa Natives, Round 3), Jesse Lawrence (Dauphin, Round 4), Robert Hechler (Winkler Flyers, Round 5), Bradley Schoonbaert (Dauphin, Round 5), Keaton Jamieson (Virden Oil Capitals, Round 6), and Colton Bates (Winkler, Round 6).
“It was a pretty good feat and Shearer going second overall was good, too,” said Mark Johnston, an assistant coach on Brandon’s Bantam AA team and the director of player personnel for the Dauphin Kings. “Definitely, they were very well-coached, they listened, they learned and they were a keen, keen group of kids and they definitely wanted to win … A lot of kids improved. I think right from the get-go right to the end of the year, every kid looked like he had improved and gotten better. And obviously 10 kids were selected in the MJ draft, which is a pretty unique feat in itself.”
FREE AGENT FRENZY: Canada Day will also be a big day in the NHL as teams prepare to cash in on the first day of free agency. Among the players who are not expected to sign contracts before Sunday’s deadline are Nesbitt native Aaron Rome, a 28-year-old defenceman who reportedly won’t be offered a deal by the Vancouver Canucks, and former Brandonite Bryce Salvador, a 36-year-old New Jersey Devils defenceman who is also expected to become an unrestricted free agent. Other notables in line to become unrestricted free agents include former Brandon Wheat Kings Jordin Tootoo (Nashville Predators), Ryan Craig (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Rob Klinkhammer (Ottawa Senators), while former Wheat King sniper Eric Fehr is expected to be left unsigned by the Winnipeg Jets and will become a restricted free agent.