Recapping the Okotoks Dawgs’ road to their 2019 WCBL title

“You win it.”

Visitors to Seaman Stadium may have become familiar with this phrase over the last two summers. Those seated close enough to the home dugout could hear Mitch Schmidt, the head coach of the Okotoks Dawgs, bark this motto to his charges dozens of times each game.

The spirited slogan was often used as encouragement to achieve a seemingly small task – you win an at bat, you win by stealing a bag on the base paths, you win by getting a bunt down, you win by inducing a ground ball, you win by punching through a third strike, you win by making a routine defensive play in the field.

“You win it.”

Schmidt – who goes by the nickname “Big Bear” – may need to find a new catchphrase when he returns to Okotoks in 2020. And while “you won it” doesn’t have the same ring to it, that is now a statement of fact.

After piling up all those little victories over the course of the 2019 Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) season, the Dawgs claimed the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy with an 8-6 victory over the Regina Red Sox on Aug. 16th and will enter next year as the defending champions.

It’s the team’s first league title since they completed a three-peat in 2009, back when it looked like the Dawgs wouldn’t go very long between championships. A decade later, and after being branded “Okochokes” by critics as a result of their recent postseason failures, the Dawgs are hoping to enter a new era of trophy inscriptions.

The regular season foretold of a team that was capable of realizing its lofty aspirations. A 40-15 record was more than good enough to finish atop the Western Division, well clear of the second-place Lethbridge Bulls, who finished with 31 wins and 25 losses.

At the plate, Okotoks racked up more runs (409), hits (594) and total bases (874) than any other squad in the WCBL. The Dawgs also registered the best collective on-base percentage (.392), batting average (.305) and slugging percentage (.449) in the league.

Tristan Peters paced the offence with his league-leading .396 batting average, 52 runs, 12 long balls, 44 runs batted in (RBI) and 13 stolen bases in 52 games, while starting pitcher Nolan Ruff went a perfect 7-0, with a 3.14 earned run average (ERA), 65 strikeouts, and just six walks during 57.1 innings and nine starts for Okotoks.

On the bump, Dawgs pitchers allowed the fewest walks (184) of any team, while their totals in the categories of hits allowed (460); wild pitches (49); strikeouts (513); saves (12); home runs against (16); walks and hits per inning pitched, or WHIP (1.31); opposing batting average (.242); and ERA (3.66) were superior to any club in the Western Division.

When Dawgs players hit the diamond, meanwhile, they were responsible for the second-best fielding percentage (.969) and the second-fewest errors (60) in the WCBL.

These kind of team performances are not new – Okotoks qualifies for the postseason on an annual basis.

The Dawgs clinched top spot in the Western Division in late July, well before their last regular-season contest against Medicine Hat on Aug. 7th. The only suspense for Okotoks during those final games before the postseason was determining who their opening playoff opponent would be: the Edmonton Prospects or Fort McMurray Giants.

When the Prospects edged out the Giants, it meant the Dawgs would square off against a club that had eliminated them from playoff contention three straight years. It was those consecutive opening series losses that invited the chants of “Okochokes” from opposing hecklers.

Eager to move past the Prospects, both mentally and physically, the Dawgs came out firing in Game 1 of their best-of-three series. A balanced offence that erupted for five runs in the eighth inning and strong pitching performances from Ruff and Desjardins powered Okotoks to a 7-2 victory.

The second game at RE/MAX Field in Edmonton was a marathon. The Prospects mustered two runs – one earned – against starting pitcher Justin Hammergren by the sixth inning before the Dawgs tied things up in the eighth. When Okotoks struck for a pair of runs in the top of the 10th inning, it looked like they may have finally solved their postseason nemesis. But a pair of hit batters, followed by a double steal, set the table for an Edmonton comeback, which was capped off by a bases-loaded single from Tyler Maskill that sealed a 5-4 win. Hunter Boyd, the only pitcher for the Prospects that night, threw 143 pitches over 10 innings and struck out 10 batters.

“It was a fun game to be a part of. I talk to (Hunter) here and there and I let him know he threw a great game, because he did. He threw a great game,” recalled Hammergren, of Tucson, Arizona.

“It was a pretty cool thing to watch. Knowing him, I knew he was going for the long haul. He was going for it.”

With a decisive Game 3 in Okotoks, the Dawgs turned to starting pitcher Tanner Simpson, who delivered a masterful complete-game shutout in a 5-0 triumph. The righthander, who attended Lewis-Clarke State College with Hammergren, punched out 11 Edmonton batters while yielding just six hits and one walk. More importantly, he punched a ticket to the second round of the playoffs.

“I always maintained that, yes it’s disappointing when you don’t win and you lose in the playoffs, but this idea of ‘Okochokes’ and the monkey off our back, I never believed in it and I told the players that,” said Dawgs bench coach Dave Robb.

With the curse – real or imagined – behind them, the Dawgs set their sights on the Lethbridge Bulls, who defeated the defending WCBL champion Medicine Hat Mavericks in three games.

Okotoks edged the Bulls 6-5 in the series opener, thanks in large part to outfielder Jacob Melton’s 4-for-5 night at the plate, which allowed him to drive in two runs and cross the plate twice. Pitcher Galen Manhard also had a solid game, working 7.1 innings and striking out 11 batters. The southpaw from Carmel Valley, California gave up four runs, but only two of them were earned. Desjardins, meanwhile, picked up his second playoff win out of the bullpen.

Game 2 provided more adversity for the Dawgs, as starting pitcher Nick Vickers struggled. In just 2.2 innings, the Dawgs Academy grad surrendered eight free passes and five earned runs before giving way to high schooler Matt Wilkinson, who allowed just two hits and zero runs in 5.1 innings of relief. By that point, however, the damage had been done and Okotoks fell by a 5-1 score.

Facing a winner-take-all game in their second straight series, the Dawgs switched up their pitching strategy at Seaman Stadium, making relief pitcher Desjardins the starter. In his longest outing of the summer, the righty – who collected a win, two saves, 14 Ks and 1.92 ERA during 14 regular season innings – responded with four strikeouts over five innings, while giving up three runs, only two of which were earned.

Desjardins was matched by Bulls pitcher Ben Erwin, of Spruce Grove, who racked up eight strikeouts but allowed three runs in his five frames. Heading to the bottom of the sixth inning, the teams were tied when Patterson singled and advanced to second base on a Chase Florendine wild pitch. Peters followed with a hit that plated Patterson. In his only relief appearance of the WCBL season, that was all the help that Hammergren needed. He allowed a pair of hits and no walks during four innings as the Dawgs held on for a 4-3 win.

“I’m happy to continue playing baseball, honestly. That’s all I really want to do … I try to take it in every day, because today could be my last game. I just do whatever I can to leave it all out there,” said Hammergren, a senior, following the series win over Lethbridge.

“To be able to do this for the fans and the whole city is kind of awesome, because I know we had this stigma of not being able to make it out of the first round. I learned that one quick, but after that I think we’ve just been rolling and it’s been great. You can feel it around the stadium. When we come to the game, the buzz is pretty high.”

The West was won, but the Dawgs still had work to do.

For the second straight season, the Regina Red Sox won the right to represent the Eastern Division – and Saskatchewan – in the WCBL championship series.

Okotoks began the finals on the road and sent Ruff to the bump to open the game at Currie Field. The Regis University righthander was not content to just start the game, so he finished it, too. During the 7-2 win for the Dawgs, Ruff threw a complete game and struck out five batters. Although he allowed seven hits, no bases on balls were issued. The batting lineup for Okotoks supported Ruff’s taming efforts with steady run production, including a pair of RBI each from designated hitter Will Hollis and catcher Gavin Logan.

The eight-hour bus ride back to Alberta didn’t seem quite so long after the win, but the Dawgs still needed one more victory to seal the deal.

A chilly evening along the Sheep River didn’t keep the fans away from Seaman Stadium on Aug. 16th. With the Dawgs last home date of the season and an opportunity to end a decade-long championship drought, 3,745 baseball watchers showed up to witness a contest that had plenty of momentum changes, but eventually wound up with an 8-6 game and Dawgs series win.

Managing director John Ircandia – who founded Dawgs Academy in the mid 1990s before introducing the summer collegiate club in 2003 and spearheading the move to Okotoks in 2007 – thought of his father after the team captured their fifth championship. John Ircandia Sr. passed away on July 1st at the age of 92.

“It was kind of personal,” Ircandia told the Prospects Baseball Show podcast.

“My dad was a huge fan of the Dawgs. … we had lots of conversations about the Dawgs and he would say, ‘Are the fans still coming out?’ He was always amazed at the number of fans who enjoyed watching us – he would say, ‘They really deserve another championship.’ When we won this championship, I did some personal reflecting and said, ‘Dad, we got this for you. I hope you’re watching this on celestial YouTube or something,’ so there was that personal side to this particular championship.”

(Photo courtesy Ian Wilson, Alberta Dugout Stories.)

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