Centennial Park – Greatness is defined by the St. Albert Cardinals as back-to-back provincial champions.
A superlative Sunday of baseball in Sherwood Park was celebrated by the first 18U AAA Tier I team in Alberta to repeat since the 2011-12 Okotoks Dawgs Black.
The Cardinals mowed down the Northern Lights of Grande Prairie 9-0 in the final as Riley Norton went the distance with a seven-hitter after the Red Birds pulled off a stunning 3-2 walk-off against the South Jasper Place Jays in the semifinal.
“It shows with this coaching staff, and the organization as a group, how strong we are to be so competitive,” said first baseman Ryan Marples after the trophy presentation while marvelling over the accomplishment by the Cardinals, 5-0 at provincials after placing second in the Norwest 18U AAA league at 27-8.
“It’s a pretty special time. It’s a pretty special group of people here,” said a misty-eyed Cam Houston, who is stepping down as head coach of the Cardinals after nationals in London, Ont. “With myself not coming back and these guys battling for me all year and grinding things out and being able to finish with a championship is something special.
"But we're not done yet. Hopefully we can go get a championship and the first one for St. Albert."
Houston was among several individuals the Cardinals were playing for with pride and passion at provincials.
“It means a lot to get the win for him. I know he cares a lot and he’s given a lot to this association, and especially Kurtus Millar (St. Albert Minor Baseball Association president and assistant coach at provincials and for nationals) as well. The new field house (at Legion Memorial Park) is named after him and he gives a lot of his time to help us and he gives us the opportunity to win games like this and compete for a provincial championship,” said shortstop Mike Brisson. “There are a lot of people who are involved behind the scenes that have put us in this position to succeed, so it means a lot to win it for all of them.”
The biggest win wasn’t the final however, it was the semifinal and the Cardinals were three outs away from a massive disappointing end to the season against a team they beat consistently in league play.
“We couldn’t give up,” Brisson said. “It was a battle against SJP. They really played well. We had to battle back and it was definitely hard to do, but the one big thing about us is we don’t give up.”
Down 2-1 in the bottom of seven, Evan Bourassa and Carson Ironside hung tough to draw consecutive walks while facing full counts and an error in the outfield trying to snag a ball belted by Brisson loaded the bases for Jackson Moffat, the No. 3 hitter in the batting order. On the second pitch, Moffat drilled the offering down the line that handcuffed the third baseman, who was charged with an error on the play, as Bourassa and Ironside raced home to complete the clutch comeback.
“I was just trying to find something to hit and (the pitcher) let it a little in,” said Moffat, who was mobbed in a rolling maul of Cardinals after the defining moment of the provincial championship. “I ran up the line and I thought he was going to get me at one, but he kind of bobbled it on the backhand and then I saw it scoot away. We’ve got Carson on second base, one of the fastest kids in our league, so I just put my hands up after he bobbled it because I knew it was over.
“It’s a special game, a special day,” Moffat added. “It’s the kind of game you love. It’s a fun game. This is why you play the game to win games like this in the semifinals. There is nothing better than this on a baseball field.”
The tournament MVP (“I was pretty hot this weekend”), who is also competing at the 17U Baseball Canada Cup starting today in Regina, had an inkling it was a done deal when he stepped into the batter’s box.
“Something was different at that at-bat. I can’t really describe it,” Moffat said. “I don’t want to say I was going to get a hit, but I felt like I kind of knew I would.”
The semifinal started off with a triple play by the Cardinals and in the second inning the Jays opened the scoring by drawing a walk with the bases loaded.
In the third, Brisson was hit by a pitch, reached second with a standup steal and scored on Moffat’s RBI single with none out.
The Jays made it 2-1 in the fifth with the bases-loaded RBI single with one out.
After a force out at home produced the second out, the inning ended with a strikeout by starter Brady Kobitowich, who allowed two hits while his team was tagged with five errors.
In the sixth, with two Jays on base and two out, Tyson Kowaluk pulled off a highlight-reel catch on a hit that had trouble written all over it in centre field while running towards the fence.
Moffat pitched in relief of Kobitowich in the seventh and a diving snowcone grab by left-fielder Jacob Cebryk with the Jays looking to add to their lead produced the third out.
“Some of the plays those guys made were big time, like TK (Kowaluk) and Jib (Cebryk) making those plays in the outfield and Bourassa and Ironside scrapping out at-bats, just like some of those grinding at-bats that we’ve had all year, and Moffat coming up big,” Houston said.
Was the pressure starting to weigh heavy on the Cardinals in a game that was too close to call?
“There was a lot of tough plays, but I don’t think we were nervous,” Brisson said. “We always find a way to come back and fight against good pitching, but we probably got the best pitching staff in this league, too.
“We’re a special team and it showed.”
There was no stopping the Cardinals with a spring in their step and Big Mo on their side after the semifinal heroics.
“We carried it over to the final. We were all really focused. We had one goal in mind ever since the start of the year since tryouts and we got it,” Brisson said. “Grande Prairie played well too, but we got the defence going, the pitching going, the hitting going, we got them all going at the same time and that’s what worked in the final. It was awesome.”
The Northern Lights finished 3-2 as the talk of the tournament as the Tier II champions to gain the eighth and last berth at the Tier I provincials and in the semifinals needed nine innings to edge the Calgary Bandits 3-2, but were no match for the Cardinals, who counted two in the first with Marples sparking the offence by putting the ball in play with the bases loaded with one out and, in the second, Brisson's RBI double that turned into a triple against a shaky defence with two out produced the third run.
The Cardinals went on to tack up four in the fourth on Brisson’s run-scoring single with the bases loaded, Ryan Telanko’s RBI sac fly with three runners aboard and a two-run double by Marples.
Both teams were charged three errors apiece, including an errant overthrow fielding a hit by Brisson that resulted in a pair of runs with the bases loaded in the fifth.
The Cardinals collected eight hits in total after only a few against the Jays, but Norton’s contribution was equally as important in keeping the batters off balance while registering timely strikeouts to preserve the shutout.
“Once again pitching was big for us,” said Marples, who made the last out in the final as Ironside charged at a hit into right field and gunned the runner out at first.
“You don’t see that play much so it’s pretty special. It was surreal. I just tossed my hands up in the air. It felt great,” Marples said. “It's my last year in a St. Albert jersey so it's special going out as a champion."
Marples is one of 10 returnees from last year’s 44-18 Cardinals as the first SAMBA 18U AAA team to represent Alberta at nationals since the 2014 silver medallists at the Baseball Canada championship and is among a handful of Cardinals to finish fourth at nationals in 2014 at 13U AAA, 2016 at 15U AAA and 2018 at 18U AAA.
The Cardinals, winners of 12 of 15 league games in July, advanced into Sunday’s playoffs with pool B victories of 7-2 against the Red Deer Braves, 6-1 against the Calgary Cubs and 16-6 against the Bandits while the team they expected to challenge for a championship, Parkland Twins, did the walk of shame back home after failing to make the playoffs with one win in three pool games as the top Norwest team at 29-5.
“We had a lot of key at-bats and guys stepping up late in the season. Pitching was hot, too, and that was probably the biggest thing as we didn’t allow many runs and that was huge,” Marples said.
Nationals start Aug. 15 for the medal contenders.
“We’ve got some depth and we don’t lose too many guys (Marples and pitcher Liam Froment are expected to miss the tournament with college commitments) so we’re going to have a good group going down there and with this team when it gets going they get rolling,” Houston said.