Any team can win on any given night. It’s a tired and overused sports cliché, but when it comes to the 56th season of the Molson St. John’s Senior Men’s Softball League, it is very much a reality. After all, in 2011, four teams had something to brag about by season’s end.
The Kelly’s Pub Molson Bulldogs claimed the St. John’s Day tourney, Imagewear Custom Apparel captured the provincial championship, Bull & Finch Bar & Grill won the league title and 3Cheers Pub/Bud Light (formerly West Side Charlies) was the runner-up in both the league and provincial finals.
“It’s amazing how much parity there is in the league now,” says Mark Dwyer, Imagewear’s player-turned-GM/coach.
“There were years I played when Ward Gosse was a bit like Tiger Woods on a Sunday. It seemed like he won every year.” (Note: Gosse returns this season seeking career home run No. 100)
Bulldogs’ catcher and spokesperson John Farrell, whose team lost 1-0 to Imagewear in a semifinal contest at provincials, says teams will have to be at their best for every game.
“With the parity in our league, the slightest lack of pitching, hitting or defense in the big games will most likely result in a loss.”
As a result of Softball Canada lowering the junior age limit from under-23 to under-21, each team was able to bolster its lineup with one of the graduates from the Kelly’s Pub Junior Canadians, the only non-senior team competing in the circuit.
“We’re going to have our hands full in the senior league,” says Junior Canadians coach Jeff Kirk, who takes over from Jim Dunphy. “All the graduated juniors have all strengthened the other teams. There’s not a hole on a single team out there. It’s an incredible league ... it really is.”
Which begs the question: if the league is so high on talent, why is it so low on fan support?
Veteran 3Cheers Pub player Lee Cose says compared to most other senior leagues in Canada, the quality of the play in the St. John’s league is great.
“We have some of the best ball players in the country playing in our local league,” says Cose. “Last year, we had seven guys playing in the national senior men’s team pool, along with guys like Colin Abbott and some former members of past junior national teams spread out over the four senior teams.
“And there are a few rivalries that have developed over the last few years that always keep things interesting at the park.”
Even though his own ribs might still feel the sting of countless plunkings from Bill Davis years ago, Dwyer suggests a return to the sort of game played when Davis and his brothers dominated the league
“When the Davis’s were ruling the roost and bringing a little controversy to the park, I think we did get some people showing up just to see what was going on,” said Dwyer.
“If they had Bill Davis back hitting people once or twice a week, it would help.”
The new season began Sunday at Lions Park. Here’s a quick look at how this year’s team stack up:
Kelly’s Pub Molson Bulldogs
2011 record: 17-7 (St. John’s Day Tournament champs)
Coaches: Ron Ezekiel and Jim Dunphy
Who’s back: Bulldogs’ pitchers Sean Cleary and Blair Ezekiel return, but with both playing International Softball Congress ball this summer, Donny Cleary could carry the bulk of the weekend workload with John Farrell and Stephen Strapp sharing catching duties. The Bulldogs also retain reigning league MVP Jon Kelly, who hit a staggering .538 last season and shortstop Doug Marshall, second in team batting last year, as well as the bulk of their 2011 roster.
Who’s gone: Utility player Al Hurlburt is set to have knee surgery and won’t be available. “Losing a great team player and the versatility of a guy who could play infield or outfield,” says Farrell.
Who’s new: Former 3Cheers Pub infielder Ed McDonald returns after a one-year hiatus from the game, and the Bulldogs’ gave their bullpen a shot in the arm by drafting Liam Myers with the fourth overall pick. They also added Andrew Wade with their second-round pick. Former Junior Canadians coach Jim Dunphy has come on board to assist Ezekiel.
Outlook: Even though they finished atop the standings, Farrell says 2011 was a disappointing season. “It’s nice to win during the regular season, but the ultimate goals are to win senior provincials followed by a league championship in September.” Farrell feels they team has all the ingredients for success, including “one of the top pitcher in Canada in Sean Cleary.” That said, Farrell admits having an ace of that calibre can sometimes lead to complacency amongst the rest of the roster. “You can depend on this pitching too much and it can take away from the urgency required to get timely hits. An improvement in our hitting in the big game will be key to reaching our goals in 2012.”
Imagewear Custom Apparel
2011 record: 13-11 (Provincial champs)
Coach: Mark Dwyer
Who’s back: Following a breakout season during which they earned a berth in the national championships in Fredericton, N.B. this August and September, it didn’t take much to convince the entire ICA roster to return this season. That means shortstop Justin Gill, outfielder Brad Ezekiel and catcher Ryan Boland — all of whom have played for Canada — return, as do veteran pitchers Harold Kelly, Sean Cadigan and Chris Hussey.
Who’s new: ICA picked up Craig Edmunds with the third pick in the league draft in March and the former junior slugger made good in his first game hitting a grand slam home run off Sean Cleary Sunday afternoon. Joining the team from the intermediate ranks are Tyler MacDonald (C.B.S. Storm) and Johnny O’Reilly who hit .354 with 16 RBI for Lafontaine Club/Molson last season.
Outlook: After consecutive mediocre seasons — ICA collected a mere 14 wins between 2009 and 2010 — the team benefitted from the draft and built a much stronger roster in 2011. “There was a time not too long ago when our team went to the ball park just to be competitive. That’s gone now. Our team goes to win,” says Dwyer. “I think we showed people last year that we can win the big game and it changed the whole atmosphere around our team.”
3Cheers Pub/Bud Light
2011 record: 12-11
Coach: John Hill
Who’s back: Jason Hill returns to lead the team on the hill and at the plate where he hit .479 last season with seven homers. Also returning are infielders Kris Abbott, Mark Lewis and Shane Gamber, veteran hurler and team spokesperson Lee Cose, and outfielders Matt Hill, Michael Maher and Steven Pittman.
Who’s gone: No team was hit harder than 3Cheers as they had to say goodbye to Team Canada pool player Steve Mullaley who has relocated to Ontario for work. Liam O’Keefe “decided to hang up the spikes and retire,” as has Hal Rice and Keith Coady. Wayne Bruce is in Alberta for work and both Jeremy O’Reilly and Colin Walsh have moved on to the Junior Canadians.
Who’s new: Easing the sting of losing that much talent was the acquisition of four solid draft picks in shortstop Paul Maher, utility infielder Travis Rideout, Sean Mackey, and catcher Kyle Ezekiel, who will be expected to fill Mullaley’s shoes. Speedy Ryan O’Neil also returns after a one-year absence and fleet-footed centrefielder Sheldon Keefe makes the move up from intermediate where he hit .400 last year and stole six bases for Lafontaine Club/Molson.
Outlook: “Despite losing some key players, we feel that we are just as deep, if not deeper,” says Cose. “We added a number of key pieces including a franchise catcher who will catch for this team for years to come, some good sticks and a lot of speed.”
Bull & Finch Bar & Grill
2011 record: 11-12 (League champs)
Coach: Hughie Clarke
Who’s back: In addition to Gosse, pitchers Robbie Greene and Donny King are back in mix as are Bull & Finch mainstays Colin Abbott, Bryan Clarke, Leon Cantwell, Keith and Joey Maynard, and Geoff Evely.
Who’s gone: Bull & Finch lost longtime centrefielder and leadoff hitter Andrew Evans to Alberta for work and young catcher Ryan Kirk to the Junior Canadians. “A midget catcher last year, (Kirk) proved himself at the senior level catching key playoff games and handling a veteran pitching staff very well,” says Joey Maynard.
Who’s new: Finishing fourth among senior teams gave B&F the right to pick first in the draft and they chose wisely, taking former Junior Canadians ace Mike Noftall, “a top pitcher in the league as a junior player, an all around utility player and a great stick.” Also coming over from the junior ranks by way of the draft is “speedy centrefielder” Shane Kelly, last year’s comeback player of the year. And after a four-game return to close out the season, veteran first baseman Steve Jesso is back to add a little meat in the middle of the order.
Outlook: “We are a team with a lot of veterans and we would like another championship before we all retire,” says Maynard. “With the junior draft, we were able to acquire some good young talent that will set the team up well for the future.”
Kelly’s Pub Junior Canadians
2011 record: 6-18
Coach: Jeff Kirk
Who’s back: With the aforementioned age ranges changes for juniors, just a handful of players from 2011 are back. They are led by shortstop and closer Shane Boland, Mark and Alex Power, Rylee Costello, Jeremy Hickey, Mark Kavanagh and big chucker Johnny Doyle.
Who’s gone: The bulk of the Junior Canadians talent was distributed through the league in one of the best draft classes in recent years. Moved on are slugger Craig Edmunds, pitching ace Mike Noftall and golden glove-winning catcher Kyle Ezekiel, as well as Andrew McCarthy, Liam Myers, Andrew Wade and Sean Mackey.
Who’s new: Coming over to offer some help are 2011 senior league rookie of the year Jeremy O’Reilly and left-handed hurler Colin Walsh. Moving up from the midget ranks are catcher Ryan Kirk, Jeff Conway, Stephen Dobbin, Troy Leonard and Ed Heffernan, who is on Softball Canada’s national junior team list.
Outlook: “We’ve got guys who have been in the senior league for the last two or three years, but they’re a select five or six out of a roster of 16,” explains Kirk, the former Newfoundland Midget Selects coach who was once senior league star in his own right. “We’re being optimistic and hoping to contend for a playoff spot.”