With strikes against them, towns get back in game as hubs for elite athletes

Baseball academy in Vauxhall, Alta., follows example of girls’ hockey school in nearby Warner

by Shawn Ohler, The Edmonton Journal

Published: Monday, October 09, 2006

VAUXHALL – As Cody Phipps and 20 other teenage boys from the Vauxhall Baseball Academy sprint through the grass infield, barking “Atta kid!” and other clipped encouragements unique to baseball, you see two things.

You see the boys’ improbably broad shoulders, and the temptation to place the weight of an entire town — indeed, an entire way of life — upon them.

Phipps, 17, moved last month from Round Hill, an hour southeast of Edmonton, to Vauxhall, an hour northeast of Lethbridge. He and two other Edmonton-area boys came here, to Vauxhall’s new $150,000 field and desert-like climate, to attend high school and play ball through the fall, winter and spring.

But Phipps senses he’s part of a bigger narrative.

“We’ve been told how the team will be good for Vauxhall. In a way, it’s taken me away from my own small town. But (this is) a special thing to be part of,” he says.

Surrounded by pumpjacks and pivot irrigation towers that shape lush circles out of the parched prairie, Vauxhall sits on Highway 36, the single-laner that runs South in a nearly dead-straight line from Two Hills, east of Edmonton, to the Alberta/Montana border.

The town of 1,200 has been battered in recent years by BSE and the closure of the grain elevator, the alfalfa dehydration plant and the rail line. It needed something to counter the slow downward spiral.

Phipps and his teammates in the month-old baseball academy might just be it.

“I love Vauxhall, but geographically, some days it feels like we’re in the middle of the wrong place,” says the town’s mayor, Lois Maloney.

“There was a feeling here that the decline was inevitable, the losing of industry and services. But when the school came up with the (baseball academy) idea, it just sounded like something positive that we hadn’t had in a while.”

Vauxhall Baseball Academy was inspired by its neighbours less than an hour’s drive south in Warner, where the Warner Hockey School for girls in Grades 9 through 12 was launched three years ago.

High-school classes would have been shut down and students shuttled to nearby Milk River if the hockey program hadn’t started in September 2003, says Warner school principal Mark Lowe.

Since then, more than $2 million in player fees — $19,000 a year per player — has circulated through Warner’s economy. Eight jobs have been added to an employment base of about 100.

Shane Mazutinec, a teacher at Vauxhall high school, floated the baseball academy plan the day principal Todd Ojala was reviewing the school’s enrolment projections.

“The trend was losing 20 kids a year for the next five years,” Ojala says.

“For every 10 to 15 students you lose, you lose a staff member. If the trend continued, I’d have to look at some big questions. Do we get rid our shop program? Or home ec? Art? Drama? Music? Band?

“And then Shane walks into my office and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea.’ ”

The players would attend regular classes until mid-afternoon before hitting the diamond.

“We want to recreate the atmosphere these kids would get in junior hockey. We’ll put them on a bus for eight hours, we’ll put them with billets,” says Mazutinec, himself a former WHL player with the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

“We figure American scouts will love our guys. Canadian kids will stand in the batter’s box, take one in the teeth like Ryan Smyth and be back in there in 20 minutes.”

The 2006-07 Vauxhall roster boasts kids from Nova Scotia as well as southern Alberta, not to mention Smoky Lake’s Joshua Hoetmer and Sherwood Park’s Lionel Morrill.

“It was pretty tough at first,” says Phipps, moments after jacking his last batting-practice fastball 90-plus metres over Vauxhall’s left-field fence. “But, just like in baseball, you have to learn how to adjust, become comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

Now he says he loves his new team, and his new town.

All three Edmonton-area boys want to play Division 1 college ball in the States, an opportunity nearly impossible to contemplate back home. For one thing, Vauxhall’s relatively mild climate, which last winter afforded 35 days when the ground was bare and the temperature was above 5C, should allow the academy to practise outside through January and February.

The buzz in town has prompted entrepreneurs to consider building a new hotel here, to accommodate visiting parents and scouts. And the academy gives $70,000 a year to billets’ families to spend in the community on groceries and restaurants.

“I think the program has revitalized the town,” says Les McTavish, the academy’s Stettler-raised coach.

“But we have to be careful not to overstep our boundaries and try to put ourselves on a pedestal. … We want our kids to be involved in the town … the way they are in Warner.”

Sherri Mandel, who cooks at the girls’ dorm, a refurbished Mormon church, answers the residence’s front door with a mortified look. The girls, amped from an 8-1 win that afternoon, have gelled her grey hair into a curly mohawk.

“Can you believe what they put me through?” she says. “They’re monsters!”

It’s mock outrage; Mandel loves “her girls” and Warner’s new heroes.

“There’s more optimism. We’re not losing our high school. Do you know what happens when the high school goes? The town dies.”

In three seasons, Warner grads have earned more than $2 million in college scholarships and financial aid. Many are on American university teams, the goal of current Warner stars like Spruce Grove defender Kara Edwards and Slave Lake centre Megan DiJulio.

Edwards, who, like DiJulio, scored a pretty goal in the afternoon game, says: “Our skills wouldn’t have come nearly as far…” But before she can finish her sentence, DiJulio does it for her, “… if we stayed back home,” she says.

With affectionate synchronicity, they shrug and sigh: “We love it here.”

Both towns and both programs have had growing pains — naysaying from the odd pessimist, tiny social conflicts as local kids size up their new, high-profile classmates.

But as girls from Portage La Prairie, Man., and Great Falls, Mont., and Baddeck, N.S., mill around Sherri Mandel to coo about her new coif, you see two other things.

You see joy, and a town reborn.

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© The Edmonton Journal 2006