The St. Albert Cardinals are flying to nationals as provincial champions.
The destination is Repentigny, Que., for the winners of the Baseball Alberta 13U AAA Tier I tournament.
“We’ll be playing against the best kids in Canada so we’re going to try our best and have fun,” said pitcher Connor MacLeod, the player of the game for the Cardinals in Sunday’s final.
The 5-4 victory against the host Red Deer Braves capped off a 6-0 provincials for the No. 1-ranked team.
“It’s amazing,” MacLeod said. “To be part of a team with all these 13 guys is just better than anything I’ve ever dreamed off.”
Nationals start Aug. 22 for the first St. Albert Minor Baseball Association team to compete at the 13U Canadian championship since the 2014 fourth-place Cardinals.
“It’s pretty exciting because we haven’t been there in a while,” said catcher Eric Hartman, the recipient of the Baseball Alberta tournament award. “It’s going to be a cool experience and we’re going to try and have as much fun as we can.”
Bringing home a medal is the team’s top priority.
“Since St. Albert has never been more than fourth place hopefully we can try and get on the podium so it’s first, second or third, that's our goal,” said Kennan Parker, a middle infielder and pitcher. “Everyone works hard on our team and hopefully we can pull out some medals.”
Parker, 13, is part of a seven-player core of Cardinals from last year’s 26-8 silver medallists at westerns as provincial finalists and that experience bodes well for nationals.
“Knowing that we came second and became a better team against curveballs (at westerns) that we’ve never seen before I think we have a better chance now that seven guys on our team have seen that,” said the third-year 13U AAA Cardinal who played as underager in 2017.
The Cardinals are winners of 32 of 37 games during the season of excellence.
“Our team is better overall rounded so everyone is better this year instead of like some lower guys and some really good guys,” Parker said. “Everyone has their chances of making plays and when they do they all contribute.”
The Cardinals are a tight-knit group and it shows on the field.
“A few years ago we had this exact same team and the bond between us is really good compared to other teams so I think that helped a lot because we really trust each other to make those plays,” Hartman said.
In round one of provincials, the Cardinals posted pool wins of 20-0 against Fort McMurray Oil Giants, 10-0 against Edmonton Padres, 21-9 against the Calgary Dinos, after falling behind by seven runs early in the contest, and 14-1 against Parkland Twins, last year’s champions.
Round two last weekend kicked off with the 13-8 semifinal decision against the Okotoks Dawgs.
“We showed up at the ball park ready to win. We had really good energy, kept everyone up even when people got down at times and continued that through the game,” Hartman said.
In the top of five and Okotoks threatening, Nick Vandenberg pulled off a trademark Kevin Pillar superman catch in centre field to stop the pressure.
The next inning, Parker doubled to start a seven-run rally to clinch it as Dylan Martins came in to close it out from starter Michael Yusypchuk.
“It was nerve-wracking but our team was loud, we stayed up the whole game, nobody ever got down and when they got a lot of runs we always stayed up and still tried to work our best,” Parker said.
In the final, the Cardinals almost let a three-run lead with two out slip away in the seventh.
“It was close throughout the whole time until the last inning. Everyone was pumped that we were up three runs and then when they started getting runs everyone stopped getting cocky kind of and just zoned in,” Parker said.
It was 5-2 Red Deer when Brett Leslie cranked his second homer of the game, a two-run shot, to make it a one-run affair. Leslie also stroked a triple in the loss.
Red Deer, undefeated in four games at provincials before the final, then hit back-to-back singles before first baseman Thomas Rankin ended the suspense with a catch in foul territory.
“That final out was very exciting, but the pressure was on in the last inning because they kept coming at us and they wanted to win too,” said Hartman, 13, a Grade 8 Richard S. Fowler student.
“That was a bit of a nail-biter but we pulled it together,” said MacLeod, who allowed six hits and two runs over five innings while striking out one.
“My changeup, I got a better feel for it as the game went on, but my fastball was there the entire time,” said the Grade 8 Sir George Simpson student. “It’s just nice I have these guys to back me up. When I’m kind of struggling and I’m giving up hits, I have these guys to make the defensive plays.”
In the sixth, it was 4-2 Cardinals when Red Deer loaded the bases with nobody out before Vandenberg took over on the mound and struck out the next two batters and the third out was fly ball to Luke Prostebby in centre field.
“They started to get momentum and that was kind of scary for us, but we just had to regroup,” Hartman said. “Our coach (Travis Parker) pulled us in and told us to regroup and just gave us words of encouragement that we can do it.”
The Cardinals grabbed the lead early and never looked back as a two-run double by Silas Schalk put the Cardinals ahead 3-1 in the second inning.
The turning point, according to MacLeod, was a triple by Hartman later on in the game to extend the advantage.
“It got us going again so that was pretty big. He scored that run and it was a massive run,” MacLeod said.
As for the bottom line on the Cardinals winning provincials, “Everyone contributed the best they could,” said Parker, a Grade 8 William D. Cuts student.