November 22, 2017

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'Toba sluggers show no mercy

Softball team clobbers P.E.I. in province's opening event

PHOTOS BY PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Team Manitoba batter Damien Anderson leans back on an inside pitch as Manitoba's first event at the Canada Summer Games got underway at John Blumberg Complex Saturday afternoon.</p>

PHOTOS BY PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Team Manitoba batter Damien Anderson leans back on an inside pitch as Manitoba's first event at the Canada Summer Games got underway at John Blumberg Complex Saturday afternoon.

Let the record show that some talented, resilient fellows from Cross Lake bashed their way to Manitoba’s first triumph at the 2017 Canada Summer Games.

The softball squad, comprised primarily of teens from the northern Manitoba First Nation community, opened the Games for the host province Saturday afternoon in impressive fashion, trouncing Prince Edward Island 17-3 in a contest halted by the mercy rule after four innings at John Blumberg Complex.

Manitoba pounded out 17 hits, including a hat-trick of home runs by two-sport athlete Anthony Keeper, a shortstop with the Pimicikamak Thunder in Cross Lake and a forward with the OCN Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

He clubbed a line-drive, three-run shot over the fence in left in the top half of the first inning, added a two-run blast over the centre-field wall in the third and then launched a three-run homer — that had hang-time like a Justin Medlock punt for the Blue Bombers — over the left-field fence in the fourth, to finish with eight RBI and 12 total bases.

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Let the record show that some talented, resilient fellows from Cross Lake bashed their way to Manitoba’s first triumph at the 2017 Canada Summer Games.

The softball squad, comprised primarily of teens from the northern Manitoba First Nation community, opened the Games for the host province Saturday afternoon in impressive fashion, trouncing Prince Edward Island 17-3 in a contest halted by the mercy rule after four innings at John Blumberg Complex.

Team Manitoba Softball pitcher Megwan Muswaggon hurls a fireball towards a Team PEI batte.</p>

Team Manitoba Softball pitcher Megwan Muswaggon hurls a fireball towards a Team PEI batte.

Faithfull ball fans stayed dry and cool as Manitoba and PEI took to the field at Bloomberg Park.</p>

Faithfull ball fans stayed dry and cool as Manitoba and PEI took to the field at Bloomberg Park.

Manitoba pounded out 17 hits, including a hat-trick of home runs by two-sport athlete Anthony Keeper, a shortstop with the Pimicikamak Thunder in Cross Lake and a forward with the OCN Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

He clubbed a line-drive, three-run shot over the fence in left in the top half of the first inning, added a two-run blast over the centre-field wall in the third and then launched a three-run homer — that had hang-time like a Justin Medlock punt for the Blue Bombers — over the left-field fence in the fourth, to finish with eight RBI and 12 total bases.

"The bat was going good for me. I was seeing the ball really well and the boys were really bringing up my motivation every at-bat," said Keeper, 19. "The third one felt good. I really connected on that one.

'We knew that we were opening this thing for Manitoba. We just tried to step up our game and really push the other Manitoba athletes'— Team Manitoba slugger Anthony Keeper, who had three opening-game dingers

"We knew that we were opening this thing for Manitoba. We just tried to step up our game and really push the other Manitoba athletes. We just tried our best and came out with the victory."

Just hours later, Manitoba suffered a 7-2 defeat to Nova Scotia in an evening contest at Blumberg to even its round-robin record at 1-1. Today, Manitoba meets Saskatchewan at 1 p.m. and British Columbia at 7 p.m.

Thirteen of 15 players on the Manitoba roster are from Cross Lake, located about 700 kilometres from Winnipeg. It’s basically the Pimicikamak Thunder roster, with the additions of Preston Seymour, a second baseman from Fort Alexander, and Henry Muchikekwanape, a pitcher from Norway House.

The Pimicikamak club is hard-pressed to find another under-19 team to play in Manitoba and really didn’t have to qualify for the Games. But this assemblage of talent is, indeed, deserving of the donning the yellow, white and brown provincial colours.

Just a week ago, the Thunder ripped through the competition at a 16-team, hometown men’s softball tournament to take the title. Most of these kids have won under-14 and under-16 Western Canada Softball Championship crowns in the past.

Third baseman Logan Evans belted a home run, one of his three hits against P.E.I., and finished with five RBI, while Seymour had three hits and knocked in a pair of runs.

"They compete very hard. We’re a well-rounded team, good offence, good defence, solid all around," said head coach David Muswaggon, whose son, Megwan, 18, pitched four solid innings to register the victory over P.E.I., allowing three runs on six hits while striking out three.

"We were anxious to get involved in a game to see how it would go because we didn’t know what the competition would be like. And once we got that lead in the first inning, the boys just moved forward."

He said the group is as close-knit as a team can be — these kids from the north have been through a lot.

During the last month of 2015 and the first three months of 2016, five people committed suicide at Cross Lake, the province’s third-largest First Nation, while another 18 more attempted to take their own lives.

The community declared a state of emergency in March 2016 — pleading for immediate help from the federal and provincial governments in the form of short-term relief like trauma counsellors or crisis response teams — after 140 students and young adults stepped forward and admitted to seriously considering suicide.

David Muswaggon said the healing continues daily, and that goes for the members of his team.

"They’ve lost family members and friends. Everybody’s impacted every time we lose a child or any person," he said. "We are literally all one Pimicikamak family, so it affects everybody."

Keeper said players on the softball team have tried to be role models for the younger children of Cross Lake.

"There’s been a lot of suicides and I’ve known a lot of people and it was really heartbreaking," he said. "We’re getting over that. We all want a bright future. The younger kids look up to us playing out here in Winnipeg, representing Manitoba. The past weekend at the big tournament we won, there was a lot of kids around our dugout, and they’re saying, ‘I wanna be just like you when I grow up.’ That makes you feel good."

Keeper said he was inspired by Friday’s opening ceremony and thrilled to get the opportunity to march into Bell MTS Place with Manitoba athletes from many other sports.

Walking past the most powerful man in Canada was pretty cool, too.

"I got the jitters for sure. It was amazing watching, all the performers. The organizing was perfect," said Keeper. "I saw the prime minister (Justin Trudeau). I was on the other side of the line, so I didn’t slap his hand. It was quite a moment to be that close to him. That doesn’t happen every day."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @WFPJasonBell

Read more by Jason Bell.

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