By JOE McFARLAND
Talk about your hot summer nights.
Batters in the Canadian College Baseball Conference (CCBC) and Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) weren’t able to escape the wrath of Halen Knoll’s pitches in 2022.
The young right-hander, named after rock band Van Halen, put together what he calls his “best year of baseball ever,” being recognized as a CCBC most-valuable player candidate and a WCBL All-Star.
While he’s quick to credit the teams he played for and having fun on the field, Knoll also found a new sense of confidence, especially on the mound.
“It all just came down to trusting myself, being confident in my ability, and knowing the pitches I throw got me to where I am today and they’re hard for anybody to hit,” the escape room enthusiast told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
Not only has the Edmonton Collegiate Hawks and Fort McMurray Giants hurler turned heads across Canada, but his performances also earned him a scholarship to the University of Mary, an NCAA Division II school.
In his eyes, it’s a culmination of a lot of hard work and dedication to his craft.
“It’s another verification of what I have and that my talents are getting me somewhere,” he said.
Like many Canadian baseball players, the last couple of years have been challenging for Knoll.
After spending the 2019 season with the Hawks and Giants, he was hoping to build on those opportunities to be even better in 2020.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he was forced to hit pause on his plans.
Instead of dwelling on the time missed on the field, Knoll says his teammates were very supportive of each other to get through the unexpected delay.
He admits it was a grind, but he was able to focus on some things he might not have been able to before.
“Personally, I would say that in 2020, I was a little behind talent-wise,” Knoll said. “Over COVID, I was able to catch up and it really helped me.”
The work paid off in 2021, as he got back on the mound with the Sylvan Lake Gulls, going 1-0 with a 1.83 ERA in nine relief appearances, striking out 26 batters in 19-plus innings.
Heading into the 2022 CCBC season, Knoll wanted to capitalize on his newfound confidence.
His first stop would be with his hometown Edmonton Collegiate Hawks, where he posted a 1-0 record with a 3.37 ERA in seven relief appearances in 2019.
The righthander took on a new role as a starter under new coach Jake Lanferman, posting a 3-4 record and a 3.39 ERA with an eye-popping 70 strikeouts in 53 innings.
“It was so much fun playing on the team, really,” Knoll said.
“Just having a good group of guys really gave me the drive to work harder and get to where I am now.”
He saved his best appearance for last, striking out 13 batters in nine innings in a 5-4 extra innings loss to Vancouver Island University during the playoffs in Lethbridge.
While Knoll saw growth in his game, he is also cognizant of how the Hawks are building on something special.
“Honestly, the sky is the limit,” he said of the program’s potential.
“They’re getting more players now and they’re developing really great programming there with a great head-man (with Lanferman).”
Knoll’s performance earned him a hometown promotion to start the summer as well.
He initially moved to the West Coast League’s Edmonton Riverhawks, where he went 0-1 with a save and a 7.11 ERA in three relief appearances.
The 5-foot-10, 210-pound pitcher then went back to Fort McMurray, where he had spent the 2019 summer, posting an 0-2 record with a 5.55 ERA in 16 games.
“I was basically a nobody on the Giants’ pitching staff that year,” he laughed.
But this summer was different. Knoll continued to twirl magnificently, earning a 5-1 record with 2.67 ERA in 15 games, including four starts.
He also struck out 57 batters in 54 innings to earn himself a spot in the WCBL All-Star Game in Okotoks.
“It’s definitely come full-circle and now to be one of those guys that they can rely on to start a game or to pitch here and there, whenever, it’s very humbling,” Knoll admitted.
He was also an instrumental piece in helping the Giants pick up their first postseason appearance since joining the league in 2016.
“It was just really special,” Knoll said.
“When we clinched in Edmonton, our bus ride back was just so loud … and our bus ride back is four-and-a-half hours, so it was loud for four-and-a-half hours.”
While the Giants were upended by the Gulls in their first-round playoff series, it was an exciting time for the team and community, which wasn’t able to watch WCBL baseball since before the pandemic.
“People were really excited to get out and watch baseball again,” Knoll observed.
“This city really needs something like that and you can tell that everyone’s excited that the team’s around here.”
Knoll’s time in Sylvan Lake provided a jumping-off point for talks to head south of the border for the next step in his baseball journey.
He says assistant coach Tyrus Barclay first approached him about the University of Mary in 2021, but moving away from home wasn’t on his radar.
After his start to the 2022 campaign, Knoll started thinking about it again, then got another text from Barclay.
“He was like, ‘Okay, this is a serious question now, do you want to play baseball in the U.S.?’” Knoll said.
“I kind of figured that now was the time if I was going to do it because I have a little bit of eligibility left, so I decided that I might as well go and UMary is where I ended up.”
After stepping foot on campus for the first time this fall, he says the first thing he noticed right away was the level of competition.
“The talent is amazing, the facilities are amazing – you know why you’re here and it’s exciting,” Knoll continued.
“We supposedly have a really good team this year and I’m just really interested to see how it goes and how it all plays out.”
Under head coach and Craik, Saskatchewan native Tanner Spencer, the Marauders roster includes a number of Canadians and Albertans, including Vauxhall Academy of Baseball products Shaye McTavish and Thomas Little, as well as Red Deer’s Jared Arnold and Jaxon Zanolli, among others.
Knoll hopes to start contributing right away, adding he would like to add a change-up to his arsenal, which he says is predominantly focused on his fastball and cutter.
The Bachelor of Design student is also playing out his passion with escape rooms, starting a business with his father in Edmonton.
Moving away from home has created a natural challenge in contributing to the growth of that, but he likes the idea of working on everything from construction and props to programming and electronics.
However, he’s content on solving his current dream.
“I would really like to have my own business one day,” Knoll said.
“In the meantime, I do what I can for the family business and I’ll do baseball the other 23 hours of the day.”
As his namesake famously sang, “catch a moment, do it right here and now.”
(This article was originally published through Alberta Dugout Stories on Nov. 9, 2022. It has been reprinted here with permission.)