Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Giants will feel right at home

Manitoba champs hosting Western Canada championship

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Last week the Elmwood Giants were crowned the best junior team in the province, which put an exclamation mark on their spot in the Western Canadian Baseball Junior AAA Championship coming to Winnipeg -- to Koskie Field, the home of the Giants.

But before the champagne showers of a thrilling walk-off win signalled a Manitoba Junior Baseball League title, the 2014 regular season for the Giants was a challenging road, which they had to earn every step of.

Midway through the season, they lost a coach due to suspension -- not long after that another coach quit -- and one of their most reliable gloves in the outfield had to sit out because of an injury. They finished the regular season with a 10-14 record before their outstanding run in the playoffs.

"We had to look past all the stuff that was going on around us and basically play for ourselves and play for your teammates," said Giants captain and second baseman Matt Smith. "I don't know how it all happened but it all came to together in the end I guess. We just kept sticking with it."

Now with the Western championship starting this week, the team feels they are playing up to their potential.

Along with the hosting Giants, the tournament will include the second- and third-place junior teams from the MJBL: The St. Boniface Legionnaires and Pembina Valley Orioles. It will also feature the Regina Pirates and Weyburn Beavers from Saskatchewan to go along with the Innisfail Merchants from Alberta.

Koskie Field also received some new features, with the addition of new bleachers and a press box that stands behind home plate, overlooking the field.

"I would say it's an advantage for us," said Smith, who had an on-base percentage of .452 in the playoffs. "Knowing the field in itself, knowing some of the hops and how to play it properly. But it's more of a comfort I think, being there pretty much all year. Other than that, I'm not sure how much home fans will have to do with it, but I think it's just more so being comfortable there."

It didn't matter how the season turned out, the Giants would be there to play as host. They're not sure if they would approach it any different if they didn't finish as one of the top-two teams in the league, Smith said, but the fact they did win makes them want to win even more.

That's something manager Mark Galang has also seen in the team.

"It's a loose group of guys, that's for sure," Galang said of the mood on the team heading into the tournament. "A confident, loose group of guys that have grown a lot closer over the last month and half here and when your team is tight-knit like that, and you got guys having each other's back...

"It's a really big weapon to have, especially in a short tournament where the intensity is amped up."

Galang initially started the season as the Giants' pitching coach, but after the absence of the two other coaches, Galang said he also had some growing to do when handed the manager position.

"Having to basically take on some other roles was essentially what was given to me and that was the hand that was dealt," he said. "I would say a lot of baseball knowledge throughout the years and some really good college experiences have really helped me develop some of the baseball knowledge that was needed to be a head coach... Even though some coaches aren't there at the present time, they laid down a lot of the foundational work for the transition to be a little easier than it was."

The Elmwood Giants play their first game against the Innisfail Merchants Thursday at 7 p.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2014 D4

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