In terms of experience at the peewee AAA level, this year’s edition of the Red Deer Dairy Queen Braves comes up short.
In fact the Braves don’t have one player back from last year’s squad, which hosted the provincials and finished third in their pool with a 1-2 record.
But don’t feel sorry for head coach Chuck Blackburn and the Braves. The majority of the team were together two years ago when the mosquito AA Braves reached the provincial final before losing to St Albert.
“This is obviously a step up, but the fact most of the kids know each other and have played together is important,” said Blackburn, who was a coach with the mosquito team.
“I normally would like to have one to four players back, but that’s the way it is and we’ll be fine.”
Blackburn has put together an impressive coaching staff this year, something he believes will be a strength of the team.
“The majority of the coaches have worked together which is important as well,” said Blackburn. “We have a great staff and guys who know the game and have experience working in different areas.”
Randy Gehring, Todd Jansen, Paul Claerhout and Charlie Jorgensen are assistant coaches. Claerhout and Jorgensen were with Blackburn last season with the mosquito AA team while Gehring and Jansen were with Blackburn two years ago.
“It’s important to have the expertise on the coaching staff, so they’re comfortable coaching different aspects of the game and the kids learn that much quicker,” added Blackburn, who has nine players off last year’s peewee AA program and three others — Kolbe Blackburn, Carter Claerhout and Mason Jorgensen — up from mosquito AAA.
The remainder of the team consists of Mason Love Hollman, Kolby Clark, Zack Jansen, Joshua Zinger, Jared Arnold, Ryan Berglund, Aiden Gehring, Branden Woods and Will Cebuliak.
Blackburn likes the fact most of the player had a year of peewee AA under their belts.
“It’s a big jump from mosquito to peewee in terms of the distances and the fact runners can now lead off, and there are pick offs. The year of experience at AA makes a world of difference. The kids moving directly up from mosquito have a lot to learn and quickly but for the most part they’re top players who do learn quickly.”
The Braves have been hot offensively for the most part this season.
“We knew we had good hitters, but we got out of the gates faster than we expected,” said Blackburn. “The guys have been selective at the plate and everyone was hitting the ball hard. But it will only get tougher as we go along.”
The Braves did lose three straight games to the St. Albert Cardinals and at time of writing, they have a 5-4 record this season.
“The St. Albert team is the virtually the same team we lost to two years ago, so they’ll be tough. We have a little rivalry going with them.”
Team pitching is something they will need to continue to work on, according to Blackburn.
“The kids have a lot to learn,” he stressed. “When they’re younger they work on just throwing strikes, now they need to work on hitting their spots. They need to change speeds, in other words learn the art of pitching a bit.”
The team doesn’t have an ace, although left-hander Woods was one of the top pitchers at the peewee AA level last year.
“He’s had a good start,” said Blackburn, who will eventually find five starters.
“We’ll take the five strongest and see how they perform,” he said. “Everyone else will work in relief. We have 11 of the 12 guys pitching, and even Jansen, who is our regular centre-fielder, has thrown some and didn’t look out of place.”
Defence also needs to be a strong part of the team if they hope to make a run at a provincial title.
“We definitely need strong fundamentals,” Blackburn added. “And we have the coaches in place to work on that.”
Blackburn also believes in each player finding their strongest position and concentrating on that.
“To have success on defence it’s important they feel comfortable at a specific position.”