A season that started with losing seven of the first eight ball games culminated in a provincial championship for the 18U AAA St. Albert Cardinals over the Heritage Day long weekend.
With head coach and St. Albert Minor Baseball Association president Kurtus Millar at the helm, the Cardinals managed to win some close games throughout the Tier 1 Baseball Alberta Elite League provincial tournament, before crushing the Red Deer Braves 10-0 in the final game on Monday, Aug. 1.
"There was no beating them; they gelled together as a team and they worked their butts off. It was pretty amazing to watch," Millar said.
"To see how hard they worked all year and have that come together and end up beating the top team in the final 10-0 was surreal, to be honest."
The Cardinals started provincial play with a 1-0 win over the North East Zone (NEZ) Padres, which Millar described as an upset win, as the Padres finished ahead of the Cardinals in the season standings.
In game two against the Calgary Bucks the Cardinals sneaked out a 12-11 victory before beating the Neutral Hills Wranglers 9-3 in game three. In the last round-robin game, the Cardinals won another close match 7-6 against the Camrose Cougars to secure the first-place seed going into the playoff round.
A strong pitching performance from Michael Yusypchuk in the semi-finals against the Parkland Twins allowed the Cardinals to advance to the finals against Red Deer.
Although the team had major contributions from every player, Millar said, one player, Carter Liske, really stepped up in a leadership role.
"One of our veteran guys, Liske, really led the team," Millar said. "He ended up hitting something like .700 or .800 for the tournament.
"He pitched the final and threw amazing; just a true leader.”
Millar said the team is going to take a few days off to rest and heal before they get some practices in and prepare for the national tournament being held in Fort McMurray from Aug. 18-21.
"We’ve got lots of bumps and bruises and sore muscles," he said. "They played their hearts out in provincials so they’ve earned the rest."
The Cardinals might have their work cut out for them in Fort McMurray, as five of the team's players are unable to play.
Under Baseball Alberta rules, which the Cardinals follow for regular season play, the team can have a maximum of four overage players, or 19-year-olds, but under Baseball Canada rules those players are ineligibleble for nationals.
The Cardinals will lose their starting first baseman, Jason Serafinchon; starting centre fielder Ryan Norton; starting right fielder Tristan Popik; and multi-position player Brayden Morris, as all four players are overage. The team will also be without Jack Hudson, as he is heading to the United States for school as classes begin on Aug. 22.
Taking the roster spots for the Cardinals are five hand-picked players from other teams in the league, Millar said: Two players from the Calgary Bucks, two players from the NEZ Padres, and one player from the Camrose Cougars will join the Cardinals for nationals.
In Fort McMurray the Cardinals will be looking for more strong pitching from Yusypchuk, one of their youngest players.
In his first year of 18U baseball, Yusypchuk put up head-scratching statistics. Over a season total 65 innings pitched, Yusypchuk had a 0.75 earned run average; struck out 91 batters; and had only 18 walks.
A 0.75 earned run average means that, more often than not, Yusypchuk pitches entire games without giving up a single run.
"Really, other than one shaky inning that he had all year, for a rookie to come out and dominate the league the way he did was surreal,” Millar said.
Yusypchuk's phenomenal season earned him a scholarship offer, which he has accepted, from Missouri State University (MSU). The MSU baseball team plays in Division 1 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Yusypchuk, who attends St. Francis Xavier in Edmonton, still has two years of high school to complete before he graduates.
“I’m extremely excited," Yusypchuk said about going to MSU. "I think it’s an awesome school and I could tell from the second I started talking to [recruiting co-ordinator and assistant coach Joey] Hawkins that it was an instant fit.
"Awesome program, awesome facilities, they have great academics, and there was just that instant connection there," Yusypchuk said.
Yusypchuk, with a fastball, curveball, slider, and a developing changeup in his pitching arsenal, said he tries to beat every batter he pitches against.
"The biggest thing is challenging him and making him beat you," he said of his pitching philosophy. "You have to believe that you can beat that hitter."
Yusypchuk also refused to take the credit for his success this season. "I think I had the best defence in the league behind me," he said.
"That’s the one stat that’s not shown; how great my defence was behind me, and I had so much confidence on the mound that no matter where the ball went, the team would help me out and have my back at all times.”
When asked if he thought at the beginning of the summer that his team would have so much success this year, Yusypchuk said he was confident all along.
“I don’t think this is much of a surprise because at the start, we might not have put the pieces together, but it was very clear to me that we had the talent and we had all the pieces and it was just a matter of putting them together," he said.
"You could see each weekend how we were getting better and better.”