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Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019
Year one of Voyageur baseball in the books
by Randy Pascal

The Sudbury Voyageurs have stemmed the stream of Sudbury baseball talent to southern Ontario – at least for the time being.

Organizer Jean-Gilles Larocque and his crew pitched the idea of putting together a pair of local competitive youth baseball teams that would participate in the Elite Baseball League of Ontario a little over a year ago, tired of seeing the majority of the local talent that had aspirations to play beyond high school migrate south, each and every summer, in search of the necessary competition to move their game forward.

The past few months provided the inaugural step for the Voyageurs, fielding both a 15U and 18U entry in a loop that includes the likes of the Brampton Royals, Vaughan Vikings, North Mississauga Tigers and Stoufville Yankees.

“We honestly had no idea what to expect,” said Larocque this week, his squads now back home after a “Fall Ball” weekend that unofficially serves as the launch to the 2018 summer campaign. “The goal, to be realistic, was to play .500 ball.”

Tournament success in New York, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh carried over to the regular season, with the 18U Voyageurs posting a record of 9-1-2, their schedule cut a little short by the presence of far more rain than usual during June, July and August.

“You could just see the progress, the confidence of the kids just growing and growing,” said Larocque. “I think what we could see was that with proper and consistent training and playing time, it really doesn’t make any difference where you play.”

To some extent, that was the unanswered question as the Voyageurs initially ventured down this path. Based on weather alone, the northern lads are going to play catch-up, to some degree, to the bulk of their provincial counterparts who are often on the field for their earliest practices of the year four to six weeks before any team north of Parry Sound.

Through his work with The Baseball Academy, gradually refining indoors training venues that provide at least some semblance of comparable training, Larocque and his teams have worked hard to bridge that gap. And in the mind of the man who set these wheels in motion, success breeds success.

“Now that the kids have seen they belong, the work is not so much of a push on our behalf, but more out it coming internally from the players,” he said. “That’s kind of what I think, anyways.” Not that the work of the coaching staff is done – not by a long shot.

“I’m still finding there’s a lot of teaching, partly due to the new kids coming in,” said Larocque. “The intricacies of the game, the right time and place to do something, those teachable moments for those kids who have not been completely through the program.”

The truth is that for the bulk of the 2017 18U roster, working alongside Larocque has become something of a way of life. While the team graduates current OCAA athletes Vincent Bonhomme and Ryan Barton, it also welcomes back the majority of those who competed so well this year, building around a nucleus of Parker Savard, Joe Guzzo, Cameron Docking, Brett Melanson and others.

The additions of Maritimers Cameron Brewer and Daniel Hogarth, as well as Sault Ste Marie speedster Tyler Sayers should help compensate for the losses, leaving the elder Voyageurs in a good place to contend, even as they make the jump from the Elite Division to Premier.

“The kids have really matured,” said Larocque. “We see it on the field, losing 1-0 in the semi-final on the weekend. We talked, as a team, about having tough at-bats, watching for the pitcher’s tendencies. Off the field, I’m much more confident sending them off to post-secondary programs because I think we’re going to have them well prepared for that environment, having them be responsible for themselves as young men.”

As was expected, the 15U team required more patience, with a steeper learning curve lying ahead. Where a good portion of the 18U crew had already experienced summer baseball in the GTA in prior years, the season was more of an eye opener for the younger crew.

“They were part of the process, and I thanked them this weekend for being a big part,” said Larocque. “At Fall Ball, they had a great weekend, going 2-2 and losing in the semi-final. There was a walk-off win against Ottawa, they beat Barrie 5-2. It’s starting to come together.”

A Toronto native and one time Team Ontario outfielder, Brodie Jeffery takes over the coaching reins for the 16U team next summer. It’s just one more move in the gradual evolution that Larocque would love to oversee.

“We have to keep planting seeds,” he acknowledged. “We have to do a better job, with our program, to work with the local associations. Maybe it’s a matter of having one of our coaches become a guest coach for one of their teams, help out with those kind of things.”

And if it does happen, thankfully, it will happen in Sudbury, and not a four hour drive away. Baseball dreams can become reality, even in this neck of the woods.

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