COLIN CORNEAU/THE BRANDON SUN
Reston Rockets outfielder Cole Buchy dives for the ball in right field on June 29 at Andrews Field, in one of the great plays of the 2011 Manitoba Senior Baseball League season.
For the last few seasons, the Reston Rockets have been knocking on the door of a Manitoba Senior Baseball League championship, but always started seasons comparing themselves to the defending champions.
Andrew Lochhead of the Rockets turns the double play as Nolan Jago of the Marlins slides into second on June 12. (TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN)
Now the shoe is on the other foot as the Rockets broke through to win their first-ever MSBL crown last season and know that the other four teams are targetting them this season.
Reston manager Ross Tycoles said that will put a bit more pressure on his team, but it’s a position he doesn’t mind at all.
"This is a good position to be in with other people chasing us," he said. "We’re looking forward to the season where we’re not chasing anyone and I think knowing what it takes to win makes a difference along those lines."
Reston will have a veteran-laden lineup this season that’s very deep with the heart of the Rockets’ batting lineup — Rory Tycoles, Mitch Olson, Chris Young and Drew Haight — all returning.
Despite losing Joe Cates, Cory Neer and Clayton Jago from their starting pitching rotation, they brought in Brody Pinkerton, Zane Sawyer and Cole Stober. Tycoles believes they will upgrade the team’s pitching.
"I like our pitching staff," he said. "I think these guys are strike-throwers. Last year’s staff, both Americans — Cates and Neer — walked a lot of guys. I think I’ll have guys who throw more strikes, so if you have good defence, the ball will be in play and I guess I feel better about that."
One challenge the Rockets will face this season is staying focused on repeating instead of looking too far down the road. As the defending MSBL champions, they will be Manitoba’s representative at the Canadian Senior AAA baseball championship in Prince George, B.C. from Aug. 23-26.
The opportunity to play at nationals is one of the reasons so many players returned to the Rockets and has the team excited for the end of the MSBL season.
Tycoles, however, said he has learned his lesson from past seasons and will have his players playing well in the league and at the national championship.
"We’ll stay focused," he said. "We’ll try to develop through the year so we’re peaking in the middle of the season. I think we did that earlier in our career. I pushed them to be better early in the year and this last year showed being better in the end is what you want to be."
The Rockets open their season at Andrews Field tonight (7 o’clock) — weather permitting — when they visit the Brandon Cloverleafs, the team they beat in last year’s MSBL final.
The Cloverleafs will have a slightly different look to them this season, going with a younger roster. The team lost the heart of its infield in Garrett Popplestone and Curtis Brolund as well as left fielder Derek Chapman and pitchers Kurt Wallace and Bret Heselwood.
But Cloverleafs manager Ryan Potter thinks he has recruited some talented pitchers in Chris Norquay, Ryan Johnson and Zach Mayo to complement Sean Dryden and Justin Funk.
"Chris Norquay is a guy who can throw pretty hard and will come out of the bullpen most of the time," Potter said.
"Ryan Johnson and Zach Mayo are both left-handed pitchers who give us a huge push there. We haven’t had that kind of an option for a long time. To have two left-handed pitchers is a big deal for us and we’re excited about what they bring to the club."
The Cloverleafs have also added Mason Hodgson, making him the third generation of Hodgsons to play for the team.
Potter knows tonight’s opener will be tough, but thinks it will be a good chance right off the bat to see how his squad compares to the defending champs.
"We’re always excited to start and compete and see where we fit in," he said. "Obviously Reston is going to have quite a good team down there. They had a great team last year and I’m sure they’ll have one this year with the opportunity of them heading to nationals. We expect to have tough competition."
While the Cloverleafs feel like a younger team, the Oak River Dodgers define what a young team truly is. Only three players on the Dodgers are older than 20, but that doesn’t bother manager Gord Paddock. What his team may lack in age, it doesn’t in experience. A lot of his players — including outfielder John Lawrence and shortstop Duncan Paddock — are veterans heading into their third seasons with the squad.
"They have gotten their feet wet and know what to expect," Paddock said. "It’s not like we have nine rookies. Most of them played in the league, so they know what it’s about. But they are still young, but we’re confident we can compete with other teams again."
The Dodgers, who were eliminated in a league semifinal last season, have lost all their American imports, but they have brought in left-handed pitcher and outfielder Monty McCausland, infielder Michael Boca and catcher Alexei Hernandez to fill those spots.
Paddock believes the Dodgers, who open their season at home against the Neepawa Farmers on Friday night, will have a solid defensive infield as well as some good pitching. He hopes the team’s batting will improve as the season goes on and the young players develop. He just hopes the Dodgers can get off to a better start than last year and improve on their 10-10 record.
"We had a slow start last year," he said. "We came on there in the middle of the season and some guys built their confidence up."
Not much has changed for the Brandon Marlins from last year. They didn’t lose any key players who helped them reach the league semifinals. However, they did pluck Heselwood from the Cloverleafs’ roster and welcome the return of third baseman and pitcher Eric Zamrycut.
"Eric will help us out a lot," said Marlins manager Jeff Wiebe. "He played a lot of third base and corner outfield, and he pitched for us a bit. Whenever you get a guy who pitches in our league, it’s a big help ... He’s 26, so he’s a few years older than some of our younger guys. It always helps to get another piece in the hitting lineup and another guy who can throw. That’s most definitely a welcomed addition."
Wiebe believes pitching will be his team’s strength, especially with Paul Thompson and Cody Nevins on the mound.
Wiebe believes his team may be a bit young, but hopes it will improve as the season goes on.
"We’re as confident as we always are that everybody’s in the mix in the MSBL and come the midway point in the season, I think we’ll know better where we’re at," he said. "We have a lot of young players who have the ability to become a lot better as they get more at-bats. I’m confident we will get better and not worse."
Meanwhile, the Neepawa Farmers lost two of the Rodriguez brothers this season, with shortstop Isaac Rodriguez the only one of the three to return to the team. The Farmers have gone young as well, adding players like Neepawa natives Garrett Rempel, a pitcher and infielder, and Matt Sneesby, a utility player. Carberry’s Tory Scott and Daylon Creasy are also expected to make a big impact on the Farmers this season.
"They’ll add speed on the bases," said Mike Levandosky, the team’s new manager. "We’ll make our share of errors just like anybody else might. It’s a learning experience. But these kids are 19 or 20 years old. They have a lot of baseball ahead of them as long as they learn and get better."
Neepawa, which hosts the Marlins tonight in its opener, finished last in 2011 and was knocked out in a first-round playoff series by the Marlins.
"I’m not too concerned with how we finished in the regular season, I’m concerned with how we finish in the playoffs," he said. "Of course you want to do well in the regular season, but it’s not the end of the world. As long as we improve. Last year we were under .500. This year we start at .500 and next year we get above .500 and go from there, is my hope."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 22, 2012