Small-town Saskatchewan stole the show at the Western Canadian Men’s and Women’s Fastpitch Championships in Abbotsford, and Carnduff Steelers coach Allan Hubbard thinks he knows the reason why.
“What else is there to do out there?” joked Hubbard, whose women’s team hails from a farming community of 1,100 located in relative isolation in the southeast corner of the province.
“We play ball and we play hockey. Bruno (Merchants, the men’s champs), they’ve been here at Westerns many years in a row just like us. We feed off the excitement of the game.”
Both championship games, played on Sunday at Exhibition Park, were defined by tremendous pitching performances and pivotal plays at the plate.
On the men’s side, Bruno ace hurler Anthony Sparvier carried his team to victory. In the morning semifinal, the Merchants fell behind Nanaimo Wheatsheaf 3-1 in the early going, and Sparvier came on in relief and pitched five strong innings as Bruno rallied for a 6-4 win.
In the final, the Merchants faced a Lloydminster Steel Dodgers team that had beaten them twice already in the tournament – during the round robin, and in the playoff game between the top two seeds that yielded an automatic trip to the final.
Sparvier stymied the Dodgers through five innings as his team built a 3-0 lead, but Lloydminster finally broke through in the sixth, loading the bases with one out. Bryn Redhead dribbled a single through the right side of the infield to drive in two runs, and Evan Taylor followed with a sacrifice fly to knot the score.
But in the top of the seventh, Bruno mounted an offensive rally of its own. With two runners on base, Jordie Gagnon put the ball in play with a grounder, and Justin Dauvin tried to score from third. The throw to home was on time, but Lloydminster’s catcher couldn’t hang on, and Dauvin made extra sure of that by running him over in a huge collision.
The Merchants added one more run on a sacrifice fly, and Sparvier finished off the Dodgers in the bottom half of the inning to set off a celebration.
Bruno, a town of about 450 people located 90 kilometres east of Saskatoon, won the Western men’s title three years in a row (2007 to ’09), but fell in the final each of the last two years.
“It was tough,” acknowledged Merchants coach Ray Bender. “We rebuilt again, brought a few new guys in, and just kept plugging away.”
Bender called his star pitcher Sparvier “a real workhorse.”
“He pitched 12 innings today,” Bender marveled. “We couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Like the Bruno men, the Carnduff women have been a fixture at Westerns in recent years. But while the Merchants were crafting a dynasty, the Steelers had gone a decade since their lone Western title back in 2002.
They celebrated that anniversary in thrilling fashion, edging the North Delta Sunfire 2-1 in the final.
Carnduff scratched out a pair of early runs, then hung on behind a dominant performance from pitcher Aimee Unchulenko, who kept North Delta off the scoreboard through six innings.
The Sunfire finally got something going in the top of the seventh, putting baserunners on second and third with two outs. The next North Delta batter sent a single into shallow centre field, scoring one run, and the second baserunner rounded third and tried to score. But Carnduff centre fielder Jana Sittler came up with a strong throw to Unchulenko, who tagged the runner out a couple strides shy of the plate.
“What an awesome throw,” Hubbard enthused. “It’s not the way you want to finish a game, but it’s exciting, for sure.
“You can’t explain the feeling you get when you do something like this. The girls are just overwhelmed. There are girls on this team who weren’t here when we won it in 2002, but now they know what it’s like to win a championship.”
YARD DOGS MISS PLAYOFFS
The Yard Dogs men’s team, the lone Abbotsford squad on either side of the draw, missed the playoffs after posting a 2-4 record in the round robin.
The locals got off to a promising start Thursday, winning two of three games, highlighted by a clutch two-run homer by Tim Folster in the seventh inning of a 5-3 win over the Delisle (Sask.) Diamond Dogs.
But that was the last time the Yard Dogs would taste victory – they dropped their next three games, including a 6-3 defeat to Bruno on Saturday which would have gotten them into a tiebreaker for the final playoff berth.
The disappointment at Westerns aside, it was still a tremendous season for the Yard Dogs, who won the Fraser Valley Men’s Fastball League and B.C. provincial titles earlier this summer.
Tournament chair Harv Wiens said the event went “very smoothly.” He wanted to bring the Senior B Westerns to Abbotsford to give a boost to the sport locally, and he felt that goal was accomplished.
“There are a lot of old-timers who came out who hadn’t seen a lot of good, quality ball in a while,” he noted. “A lot of them stayed all day. They were pretty excited about it.”