Minor bantam baseball team from Orillia wins provincial AA title
The Orillia Wes Brennan Construction minor bantam Royals won an Ontario Baseball Association AA title in Brantford on the weekend, capping a spectacular season. In the front row, from left, are Nolan MacNeal, Jhett Winkel, Teddy McCollum-Kuntz, Owen Kaczanowski, Kobe Gefroy, Aydan Hall and Whyatt Winkel. In the back row: Wes Winkel, Max Barzo, Wyatt Thompson, Max Rutherford, Ben Barzo, Chase Brennan, Owen Buckland, Jack Brennan and Mark Kuntz. (SUBMITTED)
The Wes Brennan Construction minor bantam Royals capped their Cinderella season on the weekend by shocking league champions from across the province to win the Ontario Baseball Association (OBA) championship in Brantford.
It was a stunning end to a season for a team that was, at best, an underdog coming into its first campaign at the AA level. In fact, the team’s coaching staff would have never predicted a provincial title a few months ago.
“We had a team meeting (at the start of the year) and I said that I wanted to challenge these kids” by elevating them from A to AA, said head coach Wes Winkel. At that meeting, the coaches said, “We would be happy if we could play .500 baseball this year. A provincial championship was not even an optimistic dream.”
But the team responded to the challenge, big-time. After an excellent regular season in which the Royals proved they could compete with the big boys, they defeated Bolton in the semifinals before knocking off the Aurora Jays in the York Simcoe Baseball Association championship series to punch their ticket to the OBA event.
The Royals began their title quest in Brantford with a dramatic win in their opening contest against Mississauga. Pitchers Nolan MacNeal and Wyatt Thompson were stellar and the Orillia defence was air-tight as the two teams went to the bottom of the sixth inning with the score tied 1-1. In the sixth, the Orillia bats came alive, exploding for five runs. The rally was started by Aydan Hall and highlighted by a clutch-squeeze bunt by Max Barzo as the Royals topped the Southwest Greater Toronto Area champions 6-1.
In Game 2, Orillia clashed with rival Ancaster, which had eliminated the Royals in their home tournament earlier in the year. The Royals played stellar defence while Wyatt Winkel threw six scoreless innings. Max Rutherford and Owen Kaczanowski spearheaded the offence, which managed five runs and Kobe Gefroy threw a scoreless seventh to earn the save as Orillia surprised the Central Ontario champs 5-0.
The Royals then met the host Brantford Red Sox at Andersen Stadium in what was a hostile environment for the lads from Orillia. Far from intimidated, the Royals’ offence hit its stride with a big five-run fifth inning en route to beating the Sox 10-3. Chase Brennan capped the inning with a booming triple, while Owen Buckland came through with a three-hit performance.
Rain delayed the team’s fourth game — a contest between the only two remaining undefeated teams — but could not slow down the Royals. Whyatt Winkel worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the first frame and then cruised through five scoreless innings against the South Division champions from Niagara Falls. He helped his own cause by singling home Ben Barzo to put the Royals up 1-0. Jhett Winkel singled home Owen Buckland to stretch the lead to 2-0 before Max Rutherford came on in relief and pitched a strong sixth inning, aided by a timely double play with the bases loaded. Nolan MacNeal came on in the seventh and allowed one run before shutting the door to secure the 2-1 win.
In Game 5, Orillia had a chance to eliminate Mississauga, but the pesky Twins stayed alive by downing the Royals 8-4. Kaczanowski had two hits in a losing cause. While that was happening, Niagara Falls eliminated Brantford. That meant three teams were tied atop the standings with just one loss apiece, forcing a lottery to see who would play each other in the sixth round. Orillia won the lottery, earning a bye to the championship game. Niagara Falls dominated Mississauga 7-0 to set up a winner-take-all showdown with Orillia.
Gusting winds played a role in the title game as Kaczanowski and Teddy Kuntz collided while trying to make a play, allowing Niagara Falls to jump to a 2-0 lead. Orillia responded quickly as Ben Barzo and Kuntz scored on a clutch first-inning single from Rutherford to tie the game. Jhett Winkel scored in the third on a balk call and Orillia added one more in the fourth, while Nolan MacNeal used knee-buckling curve balls to keep the Niagara batters at bay. Kuntz singled Barzo home in the sixth to stretch the lead to 5-3. MacNeal reached his mandatory pitch count limit with two out in the seventh inning. Gefroy came on in relief and retired the last batter with a fly-out to Chase Brennan to secure the surprising title triumph.
Wes Winkel said the team’s success is thanks to two key factors: team speed and team unity.
“The team is so fast,” said Winkel. “We are able to put a large volume of pressure on other teams and they must make perfect plays to get us out.”
The X factor may be the team’s closeness. “They are a tight-knit group — they are buddies who will go to the wall for each other. They pick each other up when mistakes are made or slumps are happening. We would have trouble picking an MVP because it truly is a sense of team.”
And the team — from top to bottom — bought into the David vs. Goliath mantra and wanted to prove itself against players from larger centres, many of whom have been playing high-level baseball since they were tots.
“We beat teams like Mississauga, Brantford, Niagara Falls, that have been playing AA-calibre ball since they were seven. These centres have specialty pitching coaches, batting coaches, etc. We don’t have fancy domes or indoor facilities like they have in Barrie; we practise in the gym at Lions Oval Public School. It’s not ideal. Often, because of a lack of facilities and diamond time, we show up early to away games and use their facilities to practise. That’s why this win, I think, is monumental. It shows that with hard work and teamwork, you can be successful. I’m extremely proud of these kids.”