The Innisfail Merchants didn’t plan on hosting the Western Canadian Junior AAA Baseball Championships this year, but when asked they jumped at the idea.
“We were asked last year while attending the Western Canadians (in Winnipeg) if we’d host it this year and Des (Desmond Bouteiller) jumped on it,” explained Merchants Jay Steeves, who manages the team along with Bouteiller. “It takes a lot of work, but it’s been good and something we’re looking forward to.”
The tournament opens Thursday and runs through Sunday at Innisfail and Red Deer’s Great Chief Park.
The Merchants, who were called the Indians last season, are still in their infancy after being thrown together last year to play the St. Albert Tigers in the provincial final. They beat the Tigers 2-1 in the best-of-three affair, then captured silver at the Western Canadians, losing to the Altona Bisons of Manitoba in the final. The Western championships consists of two teams each from Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The St. Boniface Legionaires, who replaced Altona, and the Carillon Sultans represent Manitoba with the Weyburn Beavers and Moose Jaw Eagles from Saskatchewan with Team Alberta, a midget all-star team, rounding out the tournament. For several years Manitoba and Saskatchewan were the only teams at the Westerns.
“They kept it alive waiting for Alberta to come back,” explained Steeves. “So last year they were excited to see us and for someone in Alberta to host.”
Innisfail has a senior team where a lot of the juniors play during the Parkland Baseball League season.
“We decided to put together a team last year so younger guys coming out of bantam and midget have a place to play,” explained Steeves, who has the majority of players returning from last year. “We lost two players from Provost, but added three or four guys. But basically we have a veteran group.”
The biggest problem they had last year was at the plate.
“It was the first year using wood bats for a lot of the guys and some of them were a bit overwhelmed,” added Steeves. “But this year a lot of the guys have used wood bats and the offence should increase. Last year pitching and defence were our strengths and we should be strong again in those areas.”
The Merchants have 19 players on their roster, including seven from Innisfail and four from Red Deer. A number of the players have played midget AAA in Red Deer, including Corbyn Shields and Brett Littlefair of Innisfail, Taze Steeves and Brady Porter of Red Deer, Blair Mulder of Lacombe and Cal Ireland of Clive. Mark Fay of Red Deer, who is with the Red Deer Riggers, also played the midget AAA Braves, but won’t be on the Merchants’ roster after tearing a ligament in his ankle playing football with the Central Alberta Buccaneers.
Ireland also plays in the Sunburst Baseball League with the Red Deer Stags.
Kyle Burkitt, Tristan Cunningham, Riley Wik. Jay Kirkham and Scott Dyer are from Innisfail with Alex Roth from Forestburg, Jesse Scheunert from Huxley, McLean Cruthers from St. Albert, Riley Elliott from Red Deer and Greg Walsh and Matt and Jamie Whitehead from Calgary.
The team has 11 players listed as pitchers with only two — Matt and Jamie Whithead — strictly pitchers.
“We’re deep on the mound, but with a five-game round-robin, then hopefully the final, we’ll need to be,” said Steeves.
The Merchants are looking to bring old time baseball back to the Central Alberta community and make the championships a family event.
The tournament opens Thursday with the Merchants clashing with Team Alberta in Innisfail and Weyburn meeting Moose Jaw at Great Chief. Both games are at 7 p.m.
The Merchants meet St. Boniface at noon and Carillon at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and take on Moose Jaw at 9 a.m. and Weyburn at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Also in Innisfail on Friday the Sultans clash with the Beavers at 9 a.m. and Team Alberta meets Weyburn at 3:30 p.m. At Great Chief Park, Team Alberta clashes with Moose Jaw at 9 a.m. and St. Boniface takes on Moose Jaw at 6:30 p.m.
On Saturday Weyburn and St. Boniface meet at noon and Moose Jaw clashes with Carillon at 3 p.m. in Innisfail while Team Alberta faces Carillon at 9 a.m. and St. Boniface at 6 p.m. at Great Chief Park.
The two Manitoba teams clash in the final round-robin game at 10 a.m. Sunday in Innisfail with the top two teams meeting in the final at 2 p.m.