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GymZone - Home of the Sudbury Laurels
Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2019
Local rivalry an encouraging sign on the diamonds
2018-08-27
by Randy Pascal

It's been a while since we can lay claim, in these parts, to witnessing a good old-fashioned local baseball rivalry.

With numbers in the sport having gradually decreased over the course of the past two decades or more, it's been all hands on deck just trying to establish a singular rep team, in any given age group, that can then show reasonably well against teams from other parts of the province.

Perhaps the reversal of this trend was the most encouraging takeaway from the Valley East tournament that was hosted over the weekend in Blezard Valley.

After battling tooth and nail through several previous encounters earlier this summer, including a classic 1-0 affair with a berth at provincials on the line, the Sudbury Mosquito Shamrocks and the Valley East Mosquito Jr Voyageurs were back at it, tangling in the Sunday morning quarter-final.

Yet another back and forth match-up, the Voyageurs up 5-3 after four, only to see the Shamrocks rally with four runs in the last two innings, pulling away for a 7-5 win. With that hurdle behind them, the Sudbury crew would eventually capture the championship banner, stopping Muskoka 11-10 in the semis (Weston downed Sault Ste Marie 12-10 in the other SF), and outscoring Weston 14-10 in the grand finale.

For a group of players that are primarily just ten years of age, the level of baseball was impressive. Walks were kept to a minimum, the pitchers throwing strikes, the batters looking to swing. And with a 70-pitch maximum in effect, coaches these days are forced to ensure that development is occurring right across their lineup, with the days of one or two “super athletes” dominating the tournament now a thing of the past.

The need to swing the bat really hit home for Espanola native Braden Paul, comfortable, on the diamond, to a certain degree, but forced to quickly ramp up his game as he moved to the middle of the Shamrocks lineup in recent years. “I started playing softball when I was four or five,” noted the young student at Ecole St Joseph.

“Last year, I started playing hardball. I was scared of the pitching last year. I wasn't used to it.” Clearly, things have changed. While he and his teammates were challenged to find their groove with Valley East starter William Church through the early going, Paul knows exactly what he is looking for as he steps to the plate.

“He (Church) throws it inside and low, and that's a tough spot to hit,” said the Shamrocks' slugger. “Middle low, or low and outside, I like better. I can't hit high. When I try and hit the high pitch, I swing downwards and then I just ground out all the time.” Talking a little baseball with this collection of talent is easy, their knowledge of baseball fundamentals quite evident.

“I don't think there is just one most important skill to learn,” noted Voyageur second baseman Brady Rajotte. “I think everything is really important, because you need to be able to catch the ball, you need to be able to throw the ball, you need to be able to hit.”

You can throw needing an ability to play solid defense into that mix as well, something that is not always the easiest given field conditions in these parts, where a bad hop is viewed as just part of the game. “What we try and do is get in front of the ball,” said Rajotte. “If it has a bad bounce, it will still hit our chest and we can keep it in front of us and we can throw to first to hopefully get the guy out.”

All of this must be music to the ears of coaches Jean-Gilles Larocque, Brodie Jeffery and others who inherit this talent as they reach their later teenage years. When not busy with the younger kids, Larocque was out guiding the U18 Voyageurs, a team that earned a promotion from the Elite to the Premier division of the OPBL in just their second season of competition this summer.

“In our first year, the players got together and we're talking about trying to be a .500 team,” he recalled. “We obviously had a better than .500 record, and they got the feeling that we belong. They got to realize that collectively, we can do this as a group. Geographically, it really doesn't mean anything where you're from – it's the time that you are willing to put in.”

Moving forward, Larocque sees a definite focus on the mound. “It all comes back to pitching,” he said. “We have to keep developing pitchers. Our baseball IQ is fine, we're a pretty good defensive team, our offense is a little on and off, but you need to see that level of pitching on a consistent basis.”

“It becomes about managing arms properly. You want them to gain arm strength, but at this age anyways, it's also about developing the off-speed pitch, and having the ability to throw it for a strike, anywhere in the count,” added Larocque. “You can't just rely on your fastball, all the time, to get you strikes, and I think that's what we learned a lot this summer.”

With tryouts for the 2019 edition of the U18 Voyageurs taking place this week, Larocque looked back on his key contributors, in various facets of the game, from this past summer:

Pitching: Brett Melanson - “his development has been so impressive, he just works so hard at it”; Joe Guzzo - “when we put him out there, he's maxing out to his 100 pitches consistently, every time”

Hitting: “our top of the order guys are key – Tanner Morrison, Cameron Docking, Parker Savard – we put Savard in the two-hole because he's always putting the ball in play, a solid foul line to foul line hitter”

Defense: Rilley Dubé - “he took the bulk of the time behind the plate – he sets the tone – he blocks balls, the pitchers are comfortable throwing to him, throwing balls in the dirt, and he calls a good game”

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