Baseball academy borrows Warner's ideas

Graeme Morton, Calgary Herald
Published: Saturday, February 04, 2006

Separated by 100 kilometres of sunburned southern Alberta prairie, linked by two lanes of Highway 36 blacktop, the communities of Vauxhall and Warner have hitched their stars to parallel dreams.

Faced with falling enrolments in their cherished schools, the people of Warner and Vauxhall rolled up their collective sleeves to reinvent themselves as destination schools for elite high school athletes.

Warner is three years into its girls’ hockey school while Vauxhall, three times larger at about 1,100 residents, is on the cusp of seeing its fledgling Academy of Baseball step into the batter’s box.

The towns see themselves as partners in survival rather than rivals.

“We’ve begged, borrowed and stolen Warner’s expertise and advice. We’ve really picked their brains in doing the groundwork for our program,” said Todd Ojala, principal at Vauxhall High School, which will house the baseball academy.

“We both have had to be proactive to save our schools.”

Vauxhall High, despite a strong academic reputation, saw its enrolment fall to 226 from 246 this fall.

On Friday, the baseball academy introduced Les McTavish as the program’s first head coach and manager.

A fixture for years in provincial baseball circles and an Alberta scout for the major-league Seattle Mariners, McTavish beat 60 other applicants for the job. He can’t wait to hit the recruiting circuit in coming weeks.

“We want to develop excellent student athletes here, but first and foremost, good citizens,” McTavish said.

Ojala said McTavish and assistant coach Jim Kotkas of Lethbridge are the ideal team.

“They’re not just coaches but they’re great teachers too. We found who we were looking for right in our own backyard.”

McTavish expects his first crop of 24 players, ranging from Grades 9 to 12, will hail mainly from the prairie provinces.

“We’re going to be holding open houses in Calgary (Feb. 21) and three other Alberta cities to start promoting our program,” said McTavish, a standout collegiate pitcher at Washington State University.

“And I think we’ve got a great product to sell. These kids will be coming to a safe, supportive town with an excellent high school program.”

The academy team will be known as the Jets in honour of Vauxhall’s revered semi-pro ball club of the 1950s. Extensive renovations are underway to upgrade the town’s baseball stadium in preparation for the first game in September.

“When you talk to people around town, they’re excited to see how the program is coming together,” said Vauxhall mayor Lois Maloney.

“They can’t want to see what the next step is going to be.”

McTavish said his Jets will play fall and spring schedules against midget, Babe Ruth, American Legion and high school teams from Canada and the U.S.

“We’d certainly like to prepare these boys to have a great shot at landing a college scholarship, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they could be looking at a pro career too,” McTavish said.

Evaluation camps will be held later this spring, with the first crop of Jets set to arrive in Vauxhall a few days before school’s launch in late August.

Initially players will be billeted with town families, but Ojala said Vauxhall wants to follow Warner’s lead in eventually establishing a dormitory.

“Our school is due for an infrastructure modernization and we envisage converting older parts of the school into a dorm,” he said.

Warner School principal Mark Lowe said the two programs could share the services of specialists such as sports psychologists and nutritionists.

“The only real advice we gave them was to be prepared for countless hours of hard work and to never give up, no matter what the cynics said,” said Lowe, on hand Friday for Vauxhall’s big day.

Ojala expects demand for the baseball academy will quickly outstrip current capacity. Organizers are already pondering expansion to a girls’ program as well.

“I can’t wait for opening day,” Ojala said. “I really think this thing is going to take off like a rocket ship.”

Or, dare we say, a Jet.

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Photograph by : Tim Fraser, Calgary Herald