Team fares well against competition down south

Veterans, rookies develop chemistry over 10-day road trip

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Swinging at the ball

Courtesy of Ben Rich

FUN IN THE SUN. The Western Mustangs men’s baseball team took a road trip to Florida to do some spring training. The team worked on its game, team cohesion and tans.

The Toronto Blue Jays weren’t the only ball team from southern Ontario lacing up their spring training spikes under the glimmer of the Florida sun last week.

Coming off a berth in the Ontario University Athletics semifinals last fall after stringing together three consecutive OUA championships from 2005 to 2007, the Western men’s baseball squad recently headed south on a road trip that saw them test their mettle against some strong American and Canadian competition.

The nine-game exhibition swing, which included a brief stop in North Carolina before moving on to Florida, featured four games against American junior colleges and two games against the 18-year-old Ontario Blue Jays " a team comprised largely of talented young players from around the GTA who are trying to catch on with schools in the United States.

The Mustangs also played two games against a solid high school team and one game against the 17-year-old Ontario Blue Jays.

For the boys in purple and black, who went 6-3 on the trip " including an impressive 3-1 record against their American collegiate counterparts " the games provided an excellent opportunity to show what Canadian baseball is all about.

Veteran standout and five-time OUA all-star outfielder Matt Bekar, who made the trip with the team but will not be returning next season, thinks the perceived talent gap between Canadian and American players and programs is proving more and more these days to be a misconception.

“Canadian baseball, and specifically the OUA, has made great strides in talent and competitiveness and can rival many levels of [American] college programs and players,” he said.

“In our losses we were never out-played or out-coached.”

Ben Rich, a mainstay behind the dish on the three title squads, accompanied the team south as an assistant coach.

Four Mustangs men's baseball players

He liked the fact that the ’Stangs played loose and relaxed ball throughout the trip. He agreed with Bekar’s assessment that OUA and Western baseball is never outclassed when taking on teams south of the border.

“We’ve always felt that we could compete against a lot of quality schools in the U.S.,” he said.

“This [trip] not only confirmed that for us but maybe even elevated our beliefs ... that we could compete at a level beyond junior colleges, potentially [NCAA] Division-II.”

The spring exhibition swing also gave Mustangs head coach Mike Lumley a chance to see what he has got going into next fall’s OUA schedule.

While Western’s success over the last four years has been spearheaded by talented veterans, next year’s squad will have a decidedly different look. Bekar, catcher Conrad Bach and shortstop Mark DiGiulio, all major contributors to the 2008 team, will not be returning.

Pitcher Matt Grasby doesn’t see the team taking a step backwards, however.

“Some of the rookies that came this year filled some holes perfectly,” Grasby said.

“We’re looking to build upon what we did last year ... we don’t feel that we’ve been significantly hurt at any position and we feel we can keep moving forward.”

Bekar expects nothing less than another championship-calibre Mustangs squad on the diamond come fall even with all the personnel losses, thanks in large part to excellent coaching and a strong program and tradition.

“While there will be some turnover the team remains in good hands,” he said. “The team knows what it takes to get [to the OUA finals] and is taking steps to achieve that goal and regain the OUA title.”

Another reason Western could be tough to beat next season in a league known for its parity is team chemistry. Rich couldn’t conceal his excitement when talking about what this spring’s team building might mean for next year’s team.

“One of the key factors for our championship years from ’05 to ’07 was our team cohesion,” he said.

“When you spend 10 days with a team, on a bus, eating meals together ... it’s certainly beneficial for team unity and we got that on this trip.”

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