By IAN WILSON
The Big Red Machine rolls along.
This Okotoks Dawgs team requires maintenance, but its parts are interchangeable and it’s frequently firing on all cylinders.
If the 2022 edition of the Dawgs was the best the club has to offer – as evidenced by a record 43-win regular season and a dominant playoff run – this year’s team has established the franchise as a well-oiled machine, resembling a terminator that even Arnold Schwarzenegger would acknowledge.
The proof of juggernaut status in the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) is easy to find. With 20 years in the league under their belt, the 2023 finals victory over the Medicine Hat Mavericks gives the Dawgs seven titles. Since the circuit converted from the Saskatchewan Major Baseball League to the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) in 2001, and rebranded as the WCBL in 2019, no franchise has more championships.
The Dawgs achieved a three-peat from 2007 to 2009 and continued to turn in excellent regular seasons after that, but they went through a Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy drought for a decade. When they hoisted the trophy again in 2019, it marked the start of a WCBL dynasty. After the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 campaign offered up a shortened schedule and an all-Alberta circuit made up of five teams, including two squads out of Okotoks. The Lethbridge Bulls claimed the championship that year, but when the Dawgs became whole again in 2022, back-to-back titles followed.
This summer Okotoks had to overcome the departures of hard-hitting first baseman McCoy Pearce, dependable outfielder Micah McDowell and electrifying pitcher Matt Wilkinson – among other key performers from last year’s team – to put themselves in position to make another postseason run. Whatever the team seemed to lose in swagger, it made up for in efficiency.
The 40-16 record and .714 winning percentage in the regular season were good for first overall in the WCBL, the third season the franchise reached the 40-win mark. The potent offence of the Dawgs saw the team lead the WCBL in runs (425), hits (614), RBI (345) and total bases (863). Their pitching was also impressive, trailing only Sylvan Lake in earned runs allowed (193) and hits surrendered (453), while leading the WCBL in strikeouts (542), least hit batters (53) and fewest wild pitches (45). In addition, Okotoks registered the league’s best fielding percentage (.975) while committing the least errors (49).
While it was hard to spot Dawgs players on WCBL leaderboards, a look at the deployment by the coaching staff – interim manager Lou Pote, pitching coach Joe Sergent, infield coach Andy Peterson and bench/hitting coach David Robb – spoke to the efforts made to mix different pitchers and hitters into the lineup over the course of the regular season.
No position player took the field more than middle infielder Ricardo Sanchez, who suited up in 41 contests. Infielder Trent Lenihan was the only other batter to make it into 40 games.
Over a dozen hitters, most of them Dawgs Academy products, appeared in eight games or less, but two of them – infielder Eric Machej and outfielder Eric Hartman – returned for postseason play and were meaningful contributors.
On the mound, the workload was relatively light. No pitcher tossed a complete game all summer. Graham Brunner and Noah Geekie led the way in starts, with nine each, and in innings pitched. Brunner went 3-2 with 42 strikeouts and a 3.44 earned run average (ERA) in his 36.2 innings, while Geekie was 4-2 with 32 Ks and a 3.86 ERA in his 35 frames. Five other pitchers logged more than 30 innings on the bump, including Gavin Wuschke, Garrett Maloney, Ryan McFarland, Brody Forno and reliever Brady Wilson. Another five hurlers put in 20-plus innings of work.
The playing time at the plate, in the field and on the mound was evenly distributed. All parts of the machine, but none of them spare. The end result of such usage was fresh bodies for the playoffs.
Brunner – who has represented the Dawgs in the WCBL since 2017 – was an obvious beneficiary of seeing his innings cut back from 48.2 last year. After a shaky postseason win over the Brooks Bombers last summer that saw the Sherwood Park product go 4.1 innings and register an 8.30 ERA, the southpaw was unstoppable in the 2023 playoffs. He threw six shutout innings in an 8-0 opening round win over the Fort McMurray Giants and followed that up in the final series against the Mavs with 6.2 innings of scoreless pitching that included 8 Ks and just one walk in another 8-0 victory.
“This is the second year with most of the academy guys that I played in high school with and some younger guys I never played with,” said Brunner after defeating the Mavericks in the opener of the championship series.
“I think a lot of the guys are proud to play for the Dawgs because they played in the academy and so am I.”
Brunner didn’t get a chance to take part in the victory celebration at Seaman Stadium. He had to head south to Emporia State University in Kansas bright and early on Wednesday morning, before the Mavericks punched back for a Game 2 win at Athletic Park by a 12-9 score.
His Hornets roster does, however, include a pair of fellow Dawgs – Geekie and reliever Greg Ross – that he can swap WCBL playoff stories with.
LORE OF LUTHER
Offensively, the veteran leadership of shortstop Brendan Luther and outfielder Alejandro Cazorla – both key cogs from last summer’s ball club – was invaluable.
Luther’s legend grew with each plate appearance and ground ball that he vacuumed up between second and third base. The Mississauga, Ontario native captured the 2022 WCBL Playoff Most Valuable Player (MVP) award after batting .448 and scoring 11 runs in seven games. He captured postseason MVP honours yet again this year after hitting .344 with three homers and 10 RBI.
This time, he displayed a timely power stroke that helped stake the Dawgs to early leads. In the opening game of the West Division final against the Sylvan Lake Gulls, Luther jacked a Carson Angeroth offering over the right-field wall at Seaman Stadium to boost the Okotoks lead to 6-2 in the second inning. The Dawgs never looked back and claimed a 10-5 win in that game. A three-run blast in the early going of Game 2, off of Sylvan Lake pitcher Ty Boudreau, padded the lead for the Dawgs in what ended up being a decisive 7-1 win at Gulls Field.
Luther went to work even earlier in the WCBL Championship Final against Medicine Hat. In his first at bat, the Bellevue University student knocked out a solo shot. That proved to be all the offence the Dawgs needed en route to an 8-0 victory. Such exploits resulted in throngs of autograph seekers swarming the shortstop after the game, while other boosters sent “MVP” chants his way. On social media, the moniker “Mr. August” was attached to Luther’s name, a nod to the Reggie Jackson nickname of “Mr. October” that he earned for his years of World Series heroics.
“I just want to win, honestly. That’s what it comes down to. We’ve got so much depth that it doesn’t matter how well I play, there’s two other guys who are doing the exact same thing every game,” said Luther, adding he recently incorporated the plate mentality of Okotoks and Bellevue University teammate Logan Grant, who batted .344 during the regular season.
“Throughout school we’re always talking about hitting and I kind of took a little bit of his approach into mine now and it started to work … I just took that hunt, don’t be hunted, go hunt.”
Regarding the MVP recognition, Luther expressed gratitude for the attention.
“It’s just cool to hear that and have so much support,” he said.
“It’s a really cool thing and I’m super appreciative to be in the spot I’m in right now.”
Cazorla, meanwhile, also put a charge into the Seaman Stadium fans. He swatted a clutch grand slam in the bottom of the first inning of Game 1 against the Gulls to erase a 2-0 Sylvan Lake lead. A two-run blast in the series opener against the Mavericks also helped pace the offence.
Other veterans, such as Sanchez and corner infielder Connor Crowson, also ensured that things ran smoothly for the Big Red Machine.
But when the steady bats of Geekie and Nash Crowell – who led the Dawgs in regular season homers with 10 – had to depart for their college programs following the first-round series against the Giants, the job fell to other sluggers to fill in and provide quality time in the batter’s box. Enter Machej and Hartman.
Machej took over from Sanchez at the keystone sack and smacked out four doubles while batting .400 through his first four playoff games.
Hartman slotted into the outfield in the championship series and went yard with a three-run shot in the ninth inning of his second postseason appearance, helping make the 12-9 loss at Athletic Park look slightly less one-sided.
“We see the high schoolers at the start of the year and then they just kind of fizzle out because the other guys come in,” noted Luther of the playoff contributions of Hartman, Machej, and pitcher Brandon Leblanc.
“They’ve all done great jobs of stepping into a role … they’re still playing at a level that we expect everyone to play at and it’s really awesome to see.”
Overall, it was a clinical performance from the players and coaches alike. The Dawgs went 6-1 while disposing of their challengers.
The Sylvan Lake Gulls, in particular, were expected to challenge the Dawgs in the postseason, but back-to-back losses by a combined 17-6 score quickly erased such hopes.
“We were in a battle for first place in the division from day one of the season. It was an exciting year and we had some guys that had some outstanding summers,” Jason Chatwood, the head coach of the Gulls, told the Red Deer Advocate following the second-round exit.
“They got some early leads on us and we just couldn’t find a way to battle back and come up with an equalizer to tie those games. The guys played hard, we just came up short … the guys were fairly disappointed but all in all we knew it was going to be a tough series.”
The one misstep along the way came in an uncharacteristic loss in Medicine Hat, a sloppy affair that saw the Dawgs commit four errors and surrender the most runs in a game that they had all year.
There was no shame in losing a 12-9 game to the Mavericks – a squad that was hot in the second half of the season and upset the East Division-leading Moose Jaw Miller Express in the playoffs – but how they lost was unexpected.
An adjustment to the machine took place ahead of the winner-take-all Game 3 at Seaman Stadium and the recalibration to terminator mode ultimately took hold.
Perhaps some of the Dawgs players read the comments of Mavericks owner/coach Greg Morrison in the Medicine Hat News, who offered some sound advice to his team.
“I told those guys at the beginning of the year, ‘It’s a game of attrition and it’s just staying in it. Keep doing your thing no matter what happens around you,'” Morrison told reporter Ryan McCracken.
“This is what it’s all about … once you get here – I told those guys, ‘You guys did all the work, now just breathe. When you feel your legs numb and your heart is pounding through your chest, just know that’s life. That’s living.'”
The Dawgs came out strong in Game 3, building up a 5-0 lead before the Mavs stunned the Seaman Stadium faithful by tying the game with five runs in the sixth inning. But Okotoks would not tolerate a comeback. They answered with six runs in the bottom of the sixth and added another two in the eighth before Seth Thompson closed the game out and delivered the franchise a 13-5 win and a seventh WCBL title.
“It’s just that grittiness of wanting to win over anything,” said Luther.
“This is a championship level team and that’s all we really want to do.”
The Dawgs also proved to be a major off-field success, as well.
Over 28 home dates in the regular season, Okotoks welcomed 127,622 fans to Seaman Stadium. That resulted in an average crowd of 4,558 per game and set a new single-season attendance record for both the Dawgs and a WCBL franchise.
Ballpark Digest, an online baseball resource, took notice of what was happening in Okotoks and entered Seaman Stadium in their summer collegiate best of ballparks fan vote competition. As they do at the ballpark, Dawgs fans showed up online and Seaman Stadium won the contest. The team now proudly boasts the best summer collegiate ballpark in North America.
Fans continued to pour into the stadium during the postseason. During their first three home games, another 14,961 spectators came to the diamond. And a postseason record 5,888 fans attended Game 3 of the final. On average, 5,462 people showed up to watch the Dawgs take care of business, an increase over the regular season attendance.
CUP RUNNETH OVER
There were some additional benefits that came the Dawgs way this summer, too.
Instead of just partying with the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy that is awarded annually to the WCBL champs, Okotoks players also got to drink from hockey’s holy grail, the Stanley Cup.
Adin Hill, a goaltender with the Vegas Golden Knights who grew up in Calgary, won the National Hockey League’s most coveted prize last season and brought it to Seaman Stadium on Aug. 9th. Hill served as the chalice bartender to several Dawgs players and coaches, and posed for a number of pictures, as well. The goalie returned to Okotoks throw out the ceremonial first pitch ahead of Game 1 of the WCBL Championship Final on Aug. 15th.
With consecutive WCBL titles in place, the Dawgs players, coaches, staff, volunteers and fans can now enjoy the remainder of the summer.
But if their machine-like terminator presence has taught us anything, it’s this: they’ll be back.