Okotoks Dawgs return loads of talent with repeat in mind for WCBL year

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Veteran-laden baseball club in Okotoks loaded to win crown again

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Aiden Rose doesn’t have to look far to find a champion in his tight circle of baseball friends.

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Nor does Graham Brunner.

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Because about half of this year’s Okotoks Dawgs are returning to the team — the one that won the 2022 Western Canadian Baseball League crown.

“Over the six years I’ve been here, I think this is the most returnees we’ve had,” declared southpaw Brunner, one of the Dawgs’ veteran arms. “We have the majority back from last year. Obviously, it worked out last year, so hopefully, it’ll work again.”

The mission to repeat begins Friday night against the Brooks Bombers at Seaman Stadium (7:05 p.m.).

The Dawgs then continue their 58-game regular-season schedule with a rematch against the Bombers in Brooks on Saturday night (7:05 p.m.) before returning home to play the Lethbridge Bulls on Sunday afternoon at Seaman (2:05 p.m.).

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The slate runs through Aug. 5, after which playoffs will determine this year’s champs.

Of course, the Dawgs are banking on earning that honour again.

“I don’t think many guys think of it like having to carry on the success of the past,” said Rose, a Dawgs infielder with nine years of combined experience with the academy team and the college squad. “I think it’s just a lot of focusing on the present and focusing on the future, so things happen the way they should. And that’s been good for us in the past.”

Maybe even better this year, say the players, because this year’s edition has already bonded well despite having been together for only a few days.

“A close-knit group already, for sure,” said Rose, a Calgarian who grew up cheering on the Dawgs and watching his older brother, Brendan, star with the club. “Tons of guys played high-school ball together, so a lot of guys know each other. So it’s easy to mesh as a group.

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“For lots of us, it was always to dream to play for this team, and it’s a lot of fun doing it in front of the crowds out here. So it’s easy coming out with all these people.

“And it’s a family atmosphere,” continued Rose. “Obviously from being out here a long time, I know all the coaches. It’s a lot of fun. We emphasize that we’re all out here to win — and obviously we’ve all done a lot of that — but everyone’s out here for a good time, too. Everything kind of works itself out when we’re having fun.”

Okotoks Dawgs infielder Aiden Rose
Infielder Aiden Rose is one of several leaders for the Dawgs. Photo by Darren Makowichuk /Postmedia

Rose himself expects to be a leader on offence this summer.

But — again — he’s not alone in that respect.

The Dawgs also boast the returning bats of pitcher Noah Geekie, catcher Caleb Lumbard, outfielders Alejandro Cazorla and Micah McDowell and infielders Brendan Luther, Connor Crowson and Ricardo Sanchez. Meanwhile, the newcomers of the hitting group are catchers Conner Stewart and Logan Grant, infielders Dryden Howse, Nash Crowell, Trent Lenihan and Tristan Gomes and outfielders Cesar Valero, Christian Cooney and Titus Dumitru.

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Joining Brunner, who hopes to replicate last year’s sensational 7-0 record as a starter — but “maybe with a lower ERA” — in the pitching ranks are returnees Geekie, Bobby Vath, Brady Baltus, Brody Forno, Cade Hermann and Matt ‘Tugboat’ Wilkinson. The new arms belong to Greg Ross, Jace Behnke, Jace Taylor, Chase Prestwich and Daniel Hutchison.

Said Rose, “There’s a lot of really good arms I’ve seen in the few days we’ve been here together.”

The Dawgs’ leader this year is Lou Pote, the interim head coach stepping up in place of Mitch Schmidt, who has taken a leave of absence for health reasons.

“Pretty easy decision for me,” said Pote, of Schmidt asking him to take the reins. “Mitch is a family guy. He wants to keep it in the family. I coached a little bit in the beginning of the season.”

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But he has plenty of help with veteran David Robb once again the Dawgs’ hitting and bench coach, while Andy Peterson is the club’s infield coach and Joe Sergent is the pitching coach.

And, of course, Pote can lean all the championship pedigree of his players from 2022 and even 2019.

“A lot of these guys have come through the academy here or we’ve played against them,” said Pote, who doubles as the Dawgs Academy director of player development. “Obviously a lot of returnees have done well in the league, but we have a lot of guys that have had really good seasons elsewhere and fit well with our core group that is returning.

“Any time you bring back guys that know what the league entails — the travel, getting home late from different places — and on top of that have won a championship here, that’s invaluable when you’re getting a team together. A lot of these guys have won multiple championships. And we try to surround ourselves with guys that we think have the same mentality.”

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