Sixth Championship Caps Perfect Summer for Dawgs
By IAN WILSON
This may very well be the finest vintage that the Okotoks Dawgs have to offer.
That’s saying a lot for a franchise that had a three-peat in the late 2000s, but the case for a virtuoso performance in 2022 can easily be made.
A sixth Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) championship – the result of a dominant postseason run that ended triumphantly with a series victory over the Moose Jaw Miller Express – is certainly evidence of a team at the peak of its powers.
While the club may have had more impressive individual accomplishments over the years, or rosters that looked better on paper, it was this WCBL campaign from the Dawgs that approached perfection like no other.
The signs were there early on – Okotoks started the season with a nine-game win streak. From there, the ball club never let up.
By the time the regular season came to an end, the Dawgs had established a new WCBL record for victories by going 43-13 and posting a .768 winning percentage. They finished the end portion of the summer much like they started it, going 9-1 down the stretch against teams that were jockeying for playoff position.
Okotoks hitters led the league in runs (437), hits (607), doubles (135), total bases (891), stolen bases (114), on-base percentage (.403), batting average (.315) and slugging percentage (.463).
Middle infielder Brendan Luther finished third in the WCBL in batting average (.357) while scoring 49 runs and stealing 12 bases as the leadoff hitter for Okotoks.
First baseman McCoy Pearce brought some wallop to the lineup. His eight home runs led the club, as did his 45 RBI.
Outfielder Tucker Zdunich ended up tied for second in doubles in the WCBL, smacking 17 of them in his 50 games, and he was near the top of the RBI leaderboard with 44.
The speed and power of outfielder Alejandro Cazorla – a fan favourite in Okotoks – allowed him to hustle around the bases for a league-best nine triples. The Venezuelan product was brilliant for the Dawgs, putting in a .341 batting average, 44 runs, 34 RBI, five homers and 15 stolen bases through 50 games.
Similar well-rounded performances were turned in by outfielder Micah McDowell (.381 batting average, 30 runs, 25 stolen bases); middle infielder Ricardo Sanchez (.342 average, .455 on-base percentage, 46 runs, 12 stolen bases); and two-way threat Noah Geekie (.351 average, 30 runs, 15 stolen bases).
On the mound, the Dawgs issued the fewest walks (188) of any team, and posted the second-best earned run average (3.69) and strikeout total (461).
Sherwood Park lefty Graham Brunner stood out as the team’s ace. The starting pitcher could not be beat this summer. The Dawgs veteran led the circuit with a 7-0 record that saw him compile a 2.77 ERA and 48 strikeouts through 48.2 innings of work.
Julian Tymochko (5-2, 3.44 ERA, 36 Ks, 34 innings, nine starts), Boby Vath (4-1, 2.75 ERA, 24 Ks, 36 innings, six starts) and David Case (2-1, 4.50 ERA, 34 Ks, 28 innings, five starts) were also reliable hurlers throughout the summer.
No pitcher was more electrifying for the red-and-white than Matt Wilkinson, a southpaw from White Rock, B.C. who unleashed a primal scream after big strikeouts. Wilkinson appeared in 11 regular-season contests, three of them starts, and registered 43 Ks in 26.2 innings. The lefty went 3-1 with four saves and a 1.68 ERA.
“It’s something special, to have those guys all together on one team over a summer it doesn’t happen very often,” Mitch Schmidt, the head coach of the Dawgs, said recently on WCBL This Week.
“To be able to pass our knowledge onto them, that’s big for us. That’s what’s cool.”
Schmidt – who heads up a coaching staff that includes David Robb, Joe Sergent and Andy Peterson – discussed the grind of a compressed 56-game schedule and noted that such a busy calendar will help the players beyond the summer collegiate level.
“We told the guys that this is what you have to do to prepare to get to the next level. If you want to go on and you want to play pro ball, this is what you have to do. You have to be able to show your consistency, your routine, your repetition,” said Schmidt, who was the skipper of the 2019 championship Dawgs team.
“This is it, this is the preparation and if you don’t want to play pro ball you’re in the wrong spot, because this is what we’re here for is to help make you ready or help you be ready for it.”
The Dawgs typically do exceptionally well at the gate, but the franchise reached new heights with attendance this year.
It was a symbiotic relationship at Seaman Stadium. The fans fed off of the on-field success of the Dawgs, while the players were motivated by the boisterous crowds to continually provide more for their faithful followers.
The result was a new record that saw 113,825 spectators show up for 27 Dawgs home dates, an average of 4,216 fans per game. The numbers surpassed their pre-pandemic figures from 2019. That year, 102,368 baseball watchers arrived at the diamond for an average attendance of 3,937.
In the context of summer collegiate baseball across North America, the Dawgs ranked fourth overall out of 169 teams by Ballpark Digest.
The team welcomed their one millionth fan to Seaman Stadium in June, then followed that up with July 23rd All-Star Game festivities that attracted 6,000 people to the ballpark to watch the best and brightest of the WCBL.
When the games got more important, even more boosters showed up to cheer on the Dawgs. During their four home playoff dates, Okotoks welcomed 18,975 spectators – an average attendance of 4,744 – to their games. Game 1 of the WCBL Championship Final against Moose Jaw was witnessed by 5,438 fans. Another 5,540 came out to fill seats, pack onto patios and make the berm bulge for the series finale in Okotoks on Aug. 18th.
“I think this is the loudest I’ve heard this crowd this year,” said Luther after the Dawgs took the first game over the Miller Express by a 12-3 score.
“Since day one they’ve been a really good crowd and I think everyone is coming together now because they think something special could happen.”
The Dawgs are no stranger to stellar regular seasons.
They converted a 40-win season into a championship in 2019, but suffered early exits in previous playoffs.
Entering this postseason, they had momentum in the form of a three-game winning streak and a matchup against a fourth-seeded Brooks Bombers club that had never made the playoffs before.
The Bombers got to Brunner early in Game 1 of the opening best-of-three series, putting two runs on the board in the top of the first inning. The Dawgs replied with two runs of their own in the bottom of the first and three more scores in the third frame. When Brunner left in the fifth inning, the Dawgs had surrendered six runs (four earned) but they held a two-run lead. To that point, the offence of the Bombers kept the game close. From there, the Dawgs deployed a formidable bullpen arsenal – consisting of Cade Hermann, Quinn Tocheniuk, Ryan McFarland, Seth Thompson and Wilkinson – that shut the door the rest of the way. Sanchez hit for the cycle to pace the offence and the Dawgs came out on top by a 14-6 score.
Any jitters from the opener – the Dawgs committed three errors in that contest – evaporated in Game 2. Vath was outstanding through 6.2 innings, yielding two earned runs and registering eight strikeouts to earn the win for Okotoks. At the dish, the Dawgs got 15 hits and RBI from eight different players in a dominant 14-2 victory at Elks Field in Brooks.
“Their offence was very potent all year long, and you could not give them second chances,” Schmidt told reporter Todd Saelhof after the series.
“The tale of the two games was we took advantage of their mistakes and we dug our heels in deeper when they threatened on both sides of the baseball.”
During the two-game sweep, the Dawgs hitters flexed and produced 28 runs. Such an output was impressive, but not entirely unexpected against a club that had not shown the ability to suppress runs throughout the season.
The West Division Final delivered a matchup that many observers wanted to see between the top two squads in the WCBL. The 38-18 Sylvan Lake Gulls, in their first full season, had proven to be a balanced team with a deep and talented pitching staff. Unlike the Bombers, who needed production at the plate to have success, the Gulls were capable of winning tight, low-scoring games.
As expected, the first game in Okotoks offered up some outstanding pitching performances. Sylvan Lake starting pitcher Nicholas Veselinovic struck out four batters through 4.1 innings and gave up two runs, one earned. Tyler McWillie went the rest of the way for the Gulls and also surrendered a pair of runs, only one of them earned. Those four runs were all that the Dawgs needed to prevail. Case threw five frames of three-hit ball – the only hits allowed by Okotoks in the game – and the relief crew was perfect the rest of the way, allowing no base runners in the final four innings of the 4-0 shutout victory.
Game 2 shifted to Sylvan Lake, where more great pitching took place. Ty Boudreau, who tossed a no-hitter earlier in the summer, was the starter for the Gulls, while Brady Baltus got the call for the Dawgs. Both mound keepers allowed two earned runs through five innings. The bullpens took over in the sixth and the Gulls scored the go-ahead run on a triple from outfielder Sam Stem that cashed Ethan He in the seventh inning. When the ninth inning came, a Game 3 seemed imminent. Outfielders Ruben Cedillo and Cazorla led off the frame with a pair of singles for Okotoks. The hits came against Josh Tucker, who was primarily a starting pitcher for Sylvan Lake but worked out of the bullpen in this do-or-die game. Third baseman Alex Stufft put a ball in play that prompted a costly error from Tucker. Both Cazorla and Cedillo scored to give the Dawgs a 4-3 lead that stunned the 1,915 fans at Gulls Stadium. Wilkinson issued a walk in the bottom of the ninth but he also struck out two batters to pick up the save for the Dawgs and seal their second consecutive sweep.
“The Sylvan Lake series was a battle — from the first pitch of Game 1 to the last pitch of Game 2,” Schmidt told the Calgary Sun newspaper.
“I felt like it was two heavyweights trading blows. We got a couple jabs in. They threw a couple bombs. They threw a couple jabs. We threw a couple bombs. And then, finally, we got the uppercut that knocked them out. It was an intense but fun series to watch — let alone coach — in.”
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
While this unfolded in the West Division, the Miller Express were working their way through East Division opponents. Moose Jaw swept the Swift Current 57’s and then went the distance against a surprising underdog Medicine Hat Mavericks squad that had toppled the top-seeded Regina Red Sox in round one.
The Miller Express outscored the Mavs 13-5 over three games to claim the East Division title and advance to the WCBL Championship series.
The Dawgs, however, proved to be too much.
Relief pitcher Ryan McFarland, pressed into action as a starter for Game 1, was brilliant, twirling 7.2 innings of two-hit ball in the 12-3 victory for Okotoks. The offence of the Dawgs was relentless, lashing out 18 hits in the win, including homers from McDowell and Luther. Pearce also went 2-for-5 with three RBI.
“Growing up it’s been a dream to play on this team,” McFarland said to reporter Remy Greer of Okotoks Today.
“When I got the call to start today I found that pretty cool, my parents were pretty excited and I had a bunch of family and cousins come to the game … and it turns out it all paid off.”
Game 2 was the only blemish on the Dawgs postseason run. The Miller Express got an early homer from Nate Mensik and incredible pitching from starter Cameron Dunn, who held the Dawgs to three hits and one run through 5.1 innings at Ross Wells Park. The bullpen shut the door in the latter stages of the game and Mensik scored again on a suicide squeeze play that gave Moose Jaw a lead they would not relinquish. The 3-1 final setup a decisive Game 3 in Okotoks.
“I treat every game I play like Game 7 of the finals, just to make sure I’m prepared for moments like this, so I wasn’t really nervous coming in,” Dunn told Moose Jaw Today of his mindset heading into the start.
“I know I’m a good ball player and I could do well, and it all worked out.”
The Dawgs quickly recalibrated and put the finishing touches on their summer of magic.
Brady Baltus got the ball and threw six innings of two-hit baseball for Okotoks, including one stretch where he struck out seven straight batters. Defensively, McDowell made a spectacular diving catch in centre field in the third inning. The offence was spurred by hyperactive base running by the Dawgs, who stole four bases and built up a 4-1 lead by the sixth inning. From there, the bullpen, capped by two emphatic frames of power pitching by closer Matt Wilkinson sealed the victory.
The Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy was brought out for the team to celebrate and plans are no doubt in the works for some championship jewelry to be handed out to the players and coaching staff.
“That’s been our whole motto since day one, is get a ring,” said Luther, who was named the postseason MVP after batting .448 with 11 runs over seven playoff games.
Cazorla said the seeds for success were planted in the 2019 season, when younger players got valuable postseason service time that helped them out this year. He didn’t play in the playoffs that summer, but he got a front-row seat from the dugout of what it took to win.
“What I took from that year was way more valuable than anything I could’ve learned on the field … everyone likes to watch the games, watch all the theatrics and everything but no one really sees the work behind the scenes. That group in 2019 really inspired this group here,” he told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“That team was very inspirational to a lot of the guys on this squad.”
This wasn’t a conventional back-to-back championship run. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted such a feat. After the Dawgs won it all in 2019, the WCBL was forced to shut down in 2020. The year after that, health and border restrictions prompted the circuit to operate an Alberta-only campaign that featured five teams. To help keep the league in operation last year, the Dawgs submitted two teams, which diluted their talent pool. The Lethbridge Bulls claimed the 2021 championship, but Okotoks rebounded when they returned to their usual one-team roster this season.
For Wilkinson, the opportunity to win a championship with so many teammates that he came up through Dawgs Academy with made for a special summer.
“We’ve all been talking about this since we were in high school here in the academy,” said the strikeout specialist, who got playoff experience pitching for the 2019 Dawgs.
“We have to at least do this once, one summer where we’re all back together and it happened here and it’s really fun. It’s been one of my favourite summers.”
For the Dawgs, it sounds like it was a perfect summer.
(This story was originally published on the Alberta Dugout Stories website and has been reprinted here with permission)