Cooper Jones was a step behind when he took to the field for the Sylvan Lake Gulls this season.
The 20-year-old from Ponoka missed all of last season while the majority of his teammates were playing college ball.
“My first weekend I struggled for sure,” said the six-foot-two, 185-pound Jones. “My timing wasn’t there and I didn’t get a hit my first two games. I thought it could be a long one.”
But he quickly found his stroke and was two-for-five in his third game with a double and home run.
“I got my groove back and felt like my old self.”
Because he did sit out last season there was some talk that he wouldn’t be eligible to play in the college-based Western Canadian Baseball League.
However, he’s already committed to play for Niagara University in New York in the fall.
It will be the third school Jones has played for following two seasons with the Vauxhall Academy.
Following Grade 12 he played a season with Southeastern Community College in Iowa, batting .320 in 55 games with 8 doubles, three home runs and 45 RBIs. He transferred the following season to Illinois State University.
“The following year I was going to go to Nicholls State University in Louisiana, but it didn’t work out so I came back and spent the year at home working.”
He also sent a number of emails to colleges he’d been in contact with before and Niagara showed interest.
“I like what I saw there and there were some guys I knew, so it’s a good fit and the program worked so it came together.”
Jones was born in Ponoka before moving to Red Deer at an early age. The family later moved back to Ponoka, but Cooper played all his minor ball in Red Deer. Because the St. Joseph Baseball/Softball Academy hadn’t started yet, he took his final two years of schooling in Vauxhall.
“I played AAA in Red Deer and also played with Team Alberta.”
During his time with the provincial team he played in the prestigious T12 Tournament at the Rodgers Center in Toronto.
“That was a great experience,” he said. “The first time I took the field looking into the stands was awesome.”
His time with Team Alberta helped prepare him for his college career.
“Not necessarily in terms of development but just getting an opportunity to play with and against the best players my age in the country,” he said.
He added his time in Vauxhall played a major role in his development.
“For sure. I was a skinny kid at the time with a decent swing and a decent arm and they helped put that all together.”
Cooper, who played a lot of shortstop and pitched some in minor ball, learned to play a number of positions in the infield and outfield in Vauxhall.
“My first year there I played the infield but in Grade 12 we were short of outfielders so I played there as well.”
He still brings that versatility with him.
“Being able to play a number of positions keeps my bat in the lineup.”
He’s played outfield, first and third base with the Gulls.
He feels his time moving around the diamond helps him fit in no matter where he plays with the WCBL squad.
“The higher up you go the tougher it gets, but I’ve played there before so I understand what it takes,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in that and my hitting.”
Cooper indicated he was interested in the Gulls from the first time he first heard about them.
“They were in the back of my mind,” he explained. “I knew Jason (Gulls head coach Chatwood) from the Riggers and just being around baseball and he reached out to me about where I was at (in terms of schooling) and with me going back this fall it worked out.
Because of COVID the WCBL has only five teams — Gulls, Lethbridge, Edmonton and two from Okotoks — this season but Jones loves it.
“The organization has been great to me and it’s a great opportunity for the fans to see the level of ball. It’s a cool experience.”
The fact the league is all-Canadian and limited in the number of teams doesn’t matter to Jones.
“People will be surprised at the Canadian talent and what we have to offer and we’re still missing a lot of Canadians who are playing in other leagues. It just shows how much Canadians have grown in the game” he said.
“I don’t mind the limited number of teams as we’re still playing 40 games in about 60 days. And playing only four other teams doesn’t matter. It’s important to get the at bats no matter who we’re facing. It’s good competition that’s all that matters.”
And the better the competition the more chance he has of being noticed by a pro team.
“I’ve had some contact with scouts, and pro is something I’d definitely be interested in. If I got a chance (to sign) I’d certainly jump at it right away. I can always go back to school.”
Danny Rode is a retired Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at email@example.com