Banner Season: Expanded field set to battle for diamond dominance against top-seeded Hawks and Blues

Banner Season: Expanded field set to battle for diamond dominance against top-seeded Hawks and Blues

Ajax, Ont. – In back-to-back seasons, the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks and Toronto Varsity Blues have been the last two teams standing, with each side claiming victory once. But with a now 14-team field hitting the diamonds for championship weekend, the competition will be as fierce as ever to find out if this two-year trend continues or if a new squad will rise the ranks and hit this year’s banner season finale out of the park.

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The now two-time OUA champions from Laurier are looking for the trifecta at the 2019 edition of baseball’s banner season and have the veteran contributors to make that a reality. “We like our experience and the fact that a lot of our guys have played in big games before with many having been in the championship game each of the last two years,” said reigning OUA Coach of the Year Scott Ballantyne

Among those who donned the purple and gold in those back-to-back championship appearances is one of the best in the business on the mound – Christian Hauck (Orangeville, Ont.). The fifth-year pitcher will be relied upon to lead top-seeded Laurier once again after winning last year’s semifinal bout with a complete-game one-hitter. Hauck has already hurled a pair of shutouts ahead of this year’s championship, including a 15-strikeout performance against Toronto, but the two-time OUA all-star will be looking for more.

Also helping the team to an 11-3 record in the coach-driven schedule (24-6 overall) was a fifth-year bat in the heart of the order. Connor Patterson (Mount Albert, Ont.) has stacked up the stats for Laurier in their 30 contests to date, tying for the team lead in RBIs, while collecting six doubles and a .356 average.

For Patterson, Hauck, and the rest of the Hawks to soar once again, they know it will take everyone’s best effort all weekend long, but according to their coach, the reigning champs are ready for the challenge. “It will not be easy, but our group of student-athletes are prepared to compete for another championship this weekend.”

One such team that will look to make things harder on the Hawks is the 2018 runner-up Varsity Blues. And after falling in extra innings to Laurier last year, Toronto will have redemption on their minds to secure their second banner in three years. Like the victors a year ago, the No. 2 Varsity Blues will have plenty of firepower at their disposal on both sides of the ball to play their way into Sunday.

Toronto’s offence has shone brightest in coach-driven play this season en route to a sturdy .366 collective average, .466 slugging percentage, and 174 hits. Unsurprisingly, the likes of Gabriel Nakonechny (Toronto, Ont.) and Michael Deluca (Richmond Hill, Ont.) have led the way in that regard, with the latter pacing the pack with a .457 average. The 2017 OUA Rookie of the Year totalled 21 hits and 13 RBIs in 12 games for Toronto, but it was Nakonechny, a four-time OUA all-star, who led the team in both of those respective categories with 23 hits and 15 RBIs on the year.

On the mound, the 2017 champions are led by veterans Mateos Kekatos (Toronto, Ont.) and Dean Christidis (Markham, Ont.). The duo has combined for 46 strikeouts and hold ERAs of 3.00 and 2.22, respectively. Sophomore Luca Lombardi (Kleinburg, Ont.) has also had a breakout campaign for the pitching staff, thanks in large part to his complete-game no-hitter against York earlier in the year. This depth on the mound should make for some long nights at the office for the opposition, but they aren’t the only group that will turn to their talented tossers on the weekends.

The Queen’s Gaels didn’t advance to the medal round at last year’s festivities, but will certainly be aiming to flip the script this weekend. They have had some ups and downs in the weeks leading up to the banner season finale, but anchored by a quartet of quality starters and a capable offence that reached double digit runs six times in their lead up games, they have the ingredients to find the podium once again.

Two of those aforementioned men on the mound are Adam Bernicky (Kingston, Ont.) and Gavin Ronan (Picton, Ont.). The former, a Masters student who was part of the team’s bronze-medal winning season in 2017, threw sensationally for No. 7 Queen’s leading up to the championship, picking up wins against Waterloo and Carleton while on the hump. The latter, like Bernicky, has also been a key cog in the strong Queen’s teams over the last couple campaigns. This year, he’s picked up wins against Ryerson and Ottawa, with the latter coming in the form of a no-hitter.

Anchoring that explosive offence, meanwhile, is another proven playoff performer. Curtis Smith (Burlington, Ont.) has been a consistent power presence in the middle of the Gaels’ lineup and will take on that familiar role once again with the hopes of continuing his team-leading home run and extra base production.

Just like Queen’s has been working to build a culture of success on the field, the same can be said for the fourth-seeded Guelph Gryphons, who fell to the Varsity Blues in the semifinals a year ago. “We set a goal this year to establish an environment of developing championship habits as part of our daily routine,” said coach Dean Mariani. “Our guys bought in and it’s paying off”.

In 12 games played ahead of the championship, some of those dividends are being seen on the offensive side of the ball, wherein the team amassed a .336 average with 91 runs and 31 stolen bases. This power-speed combo has served Guelph well, and one of the key contributors to this fruitful formula is rookie second-baseman Braedon Walsh (Barrie, Ont.), who tallied a .459 AVG and 1.095 OPS in his 11 games.

On the mound, the team will turn to another dynamic rookie to spearhead the charge, as first-year Dylan Clark (Milton, Ont.) pitched to a 1.75 ERA and 22 strikeouts in his 25 innings of work.

Fellow semifinalists from a year ago, the No. 3 Laurentian Voyageurs strung together a successful three-win weekend in the program’s first foray into baseball’s banner season last year. Looking ahead to their encore performance, they have some pieces that will surely help them in their quest to duplicate those results, with two of the key cogs being Tyler MacKillop (Guelph, Ont.) and Kody Anton (Thunder Bay, Ont.).

The former has been a workhorse on the mound for the Sudbury squad, totalling three wins in coach-driven play this year, which featured a 12-strikeout effort against York and a complete game shutout over Queen’s. Just like the fifth-year pitcher has been consistent with his craft, Anton has been as steady as they come at the plate. The fourth-year two-bagger has at least one hit in each game he has played this year, and for a team that is in just it’s second year, reliable contributions like this will go a long way toward an appearance on Sunday.

After a fifth-place finish a year ago, the Brock Badgers have their sights set on their first OUA title since 2014, and if they want to bring their fifth baseball banner back to St. Catharines, they’ll need the likes of battery-mates Connor Ambrogio (Dorchester, Ont.) and Matt Casburn (St. Catharines, Ont.), along with the rest of the well-rounded squad to bring their A-game. And after receiving an extra dose of guidance from former pitcher Alex Nolan earlier this year, after the Toronto Blue Jays signee ventured back to his alma mater ahead of the championship to work with the team, the Badgers are looking to turn some heads in Ajax.

While some of the aforementioned teams will turn to veterans to spark their championship play, the Windsor Lancers will focus on their youth, and for good reason, as 20 of the team’s 27 players are in their first or second year. Despite the lack of experience, however, the team is ready to show off their skill against the rest of the province’s best. Said coach Frank Jeney, “We have a young and dynamic team that is fun to watch and we are looking forward to a great weekend of baseball”.

One of the younger players hitting the field for the Lancers is Max Musyj (Windsor, Ont.), who has strung together some sensational stats in his sophomore season. The hometown player is one of the many reasons for optimism for Windsor, after securing a .452 batting average with 19 hits and 15 RBIs in 12 games played ahead of the championship.

Musyj and company won’t go at it alone; however, as they do still have a dose of veteran leadership to help them along the way. Among those who have hit the diamond for many a game with the Lancers is pitcher Jack Zimmerman (Tecumseh, Ont.). The fifth-year player has recorded over 200 strikeouts across his Windsor career, totalling 17 wins and a miniscule 0.82 ERA. If he can continue to post these stingy numbers over the weekend, the team will certainly have plenty to look forward to in Ajax.

From one pitching standout to an entire group, mastery of the mound will be the name of the game for 11th-seeded Ryerson this weekend, and head coach Ben Rich thinks they have the arms to do it. “This is the best pitching staff we’ve ever assembled, both in terms of ability and depth. If we combine that with intensity and focus for every inning, then the performance and results will follow naturally”.

Looking to anchor those arms from behind the plate will be Sam Turcotte (Toronto, Ont.). The second-year catcher caught 13 of his team’s 14 tune up games, leading his battery-mates to a team-ERA of 3.62 in the process. He also threw out three runners on the base paths.

For the Rams to build on their .500 record in coach-driven play, however, they will need to support their pitchers at the plate as well and one player who has been doing just that is Anthony Fera (Toronto, Ont.). The talented junior totalled three home runs, 17 RBIs, and 13 runs for the Rams while hitting for a .447 average and 1.170 OPS. Fera and company will need to do more of the same this weekend if they want to turn the team’s most successful stretch of play into a golden performance, but they enter the weekend feeling good about their chances.

Like Ryerson, McMaster will turn to a talented backstop in their quest for the podium, and despite being unable to muster a win at 2018’s finale, Jeremie Veilleux (Oakville, Ont.) and the entire Marauders squad is aiming high coming into this year’s championship. The second-year catcher was a true bright spot for the Marauders a year ago after earning Rookie of the Year and second-team all-star honours and he has picked up right where he left off as a lynchpin on both sides of the ball.

Not only are they set behind the plate, but also boast some strong talent in the outfield, with Nik Motruk (Harrow, Ont.) helping to man the green space for Mac. The senior has turned in several potent performances for the maroon machine this season, including a school athlete of the week nod for his 10-RBI stretch across four games in a single weekend. Overall, Motruk remains one of McMaster’s most reliable hitters and will be similarly relied upon this weekend as well.

The No. 9 Waterloo Warriors will also be swinging to rise the ranks this time around, but they’ll need a ‘strong’ performance from a pair of brothers to buoy those expectations. Mackenzie Strong (Mississauga, Ont.) and Kennedy Strong (Mississauga, Ont.) have been savvy players for the black and gold both on and off the diamond. The latter has led the way on the field with 14 hits and 15 RBIs, while playing solid defence in the outfield, but combined, the duo is also one of the most accomplished in the classroom. The Strong siblings are the school’s top academic male student-athletes, with Kennedy scoring a 98.8% and Mackenzie right behind at 97.7%.

In addition to the aforementioned pair, the team will turn to upstart rookie Chris Iltshishin (Kitchener, Ont.) to make his mark at his debut championship after picking up 11 RBIs and 11 hits leading up to this weekend.

Ranked just ahead of Waterloo heading into the weekend, the No. 8 Western Mustangs, winners of back-to-back championships just a couple season ago, will add their name to the list of clubs eyeing an improvement on their 2018 performance after bowing out in round robin play. The same cannot be said of the final three participants; however, as each set to make their banner season debuts. Rounding out this expanded group of participants for the 2019 edition, therefore, will be the Ottawa Gee-Gees, York Lions, and Carleton Ravens, who enter play ranked 12th to 14th, respectively.  

The three-day tournament is set to get start Friday, October 11 at 8:00am, with round robin play spanning the schedule until end of play Saturday. Semifinals and finals will hit the Ajax Sportsplex on Sunday, but action across the opening two days can also be seen at Dan Lang Field.

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