It would be difficult to understate the amount of newness that the Valley East U14 Voyageurs have been subjected to this year.
Reaching far beyond the effects of Covid-19, the local baseball crew have endured some notable changes to their roster precipitated by the move to the PBLO (Premier Baseball League of Ontario), as well as the traditional diamond details that are altered between the peewee and bantam age brackets (bases are 90' apart vs 75' - pitching mound is 60'6" from home plate vs 55').
And then there is that other small matter of simply facing an opposing team.
"It had been almost a full year since this group had actually played a real game, so you have to take everything with a grain of salt," noted head coach Jean-Gilles Larocque. "Besides, it's process over outcome, and it's something that we preach constantly."
"I'm not too concerned about winning games in the fall," Larocque continued. "Sure, it can be nice and it can be good for the ego, but it's something where I would rather be successful, as a program, for these kids in particular, in three to four years."
Hosting the Ottawa Canadians for a four game weekend at the Terry Fox Sports Complex, following by a trek south for an equal number of encounters the following weekend with the Oshawa Legionaires, the locals recorded just a single tie along the way.
Most encouraging, however, was an obvious rise in the level of competitiveness, as the Voyageurs adjusted to the caliber of the competition. Throw in the understandable jitters that would lead to a first inning to forget in their opener, and it's clear the acclimatization process has begun.
That was evident as pitcher Devan Madore looked to stabilize an outing in which starter Callum Baron fell victim to defensive flaws that likely doubled the number of batters that he was forced to face.
"It was like a brand new game," explained Madore, who inherited the lopsided deficit. "I try to think of it like the score is even, no runs against, just treat everything like it's the first pitch."
Working in favour of the grade nine part-time shortstop, when he takes to the hill, is the home venue of choice for Madore and his mates. "I've only ever really played on the turf the past couple of years," he said.
"I'm a ground ball pitcher, I like to see the ground balls. I wasn't too happy about the line drive pop flies at the start. Usually, I tend to get a lot of ground ball outs on the turf, which is much better than the sand."
While every single player on the roster pitched at some point in the two-week span, Larocque noted that he first turned to the foursome of Baron, Madore, Noah Portelance and Felix Aubin, all of whom are now age-eligible for this team because of the fact that the PBLO uses a May 1st turnover date.
While the walks could be trimmed a little, Larocque was quick to defend all those whose runs against totals were unflated due to errors. "You can't give these teams four or five outs in an inning," said the owner/operator of the Baseball Academy.
"They will make you pay for it. You can survive those innings with one run here, one run there. But as soon as they start putting crooked numbers up, you'll pay for it pretty quick."
With the fall season now complete, Larocque and his team will continue to practice on the turf, until the weather no longer allows it (typically around November 1st), at which time they move their efforts indoors.
Regardless of the setting, Larocque knows that he has a fully committed crew. "This group has taken it on the chin, at times, but the willingness of the kids to continue to learn, to remaining within a learning environment has paid off and will continue to pay off."
"We use a three-prong approach: defense, pitching and offense," Larocque added. "But I really feel that if we can pitch and play defense, we are going to be in every single game. Our pitchers have proven that they can throw strikes, but we want to continue with that approach, continue to build arm strength."
The 2020 lineup for the U14 Voyageurs includes Ethan Oliver, Gabriel Larocque, A.J. Dubeau, Callum Baron, Max Arnold, Justin Dandeneau, Ryan Spencer, Felix Aubin, Nicolas Dalcourt, Hudson Fletcher, Matt Lacasse, Noah Portelance, Owen Perron, Colton Audette and Devan Madore.
The Voyageurs were among the five programs that were added to the PBLO lineup this past summer, joining the Oshawa Legionaires, Tecumseh Thunder, Oakville A's and Sarnia Braves.