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Junior ball league on the upswing
The talent level in the Manitoba Junior Baseball League is as high as it’s ever been, with more players getting university experience than ever before.
Whether it’s American colleges or the new baseball program at the University of Winnipeg, the MJBL’s seven teams are loaded with players who work on their games all year round.
"The league is as strong as it’s been in the five years I’ve been involved," said St. Boniface Legionaires coach Jamie Bettens. "And it’s poised to get even better this year."
That’s because of the emergence of the Wesmen, which gave many of the league’s players an intensive training program since last season ended.
"The whole league will be more ready from Game 1," Bettens added. "In the past a lot of guys were relied upon to do things themselves. Now there’s a program in place with high-level coaching. These players are a lot more polished than in years past."
Marc Babaluk, the coach of the Elmwood Giants, doesn’t believe the players in the league are any more gifted than they were 10 years ago. The big change, said the former player from the mid-2000s, is the recent explosion of recruiting from U.S. colleges.
"There’s no argument the numbers of guys going down to play college is way up," Babaluk said. "The difference is back when I was playing maybe 10 or 15 guys were down in the States. That created a trickle effect… and now there’s a river going down there."
The Legionaires and Giants are joined this year by the St. James A’s, Winnipeg South Chiefs, Pembina Valley Orioles, Altona Bisons and defending-champion Carillon Sultans.
Bettens’ club fell to the late-charging Sultans in last year’s playoffs after a successful regular season. He’s expecting some key players, including pitcher Chad Leskiw—last season’s top rookie—and slugging first baseman Brenden Shearer, to have an even bigger impact this season.
"I think we’ll be a stronger team than last year," Bettens said. "Our goal as always is to win the league championship. It’s not a rebuild; it’s a reload."
The Giants finished third last season before exiting the playoffs in the first round. They went on to finish third at the Western Canadian championships.
"We’ve got our whole starting infield back and our top three starters back, so we’ve got a good nucleus," Babaluk said.
The Giants had five midget-aged players on their team last year, and Babaluk is hoping the extra year of seasoning will make them solid juniors.
"It’s huge for them to be that much ahead of the other young guys who are coming up this year," he said.
The St. James A’s, who defeated the Giants in the playoffs after a tough regular season, are hoping to carry that momentum forward.
"It would be nice to get home field advantage this year," said coach Ken Gray. "It’s very important for the playoffs."
The A’s are led by four veterans, including Elliot Desilets, who led the league in hitting in 2011.
For a complete MJBL schedule, visit ballcharts.com/MJBL.
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