© — Photo by Gary Hebbard
By Kenn Oliver
When the Molson St. John’s Senior Men’s Softball League season kicks off its 57th season Sunday, Colin Abbott won’t be among the Bull & Finch Bar & Grill players taking the field at Lions Park.
The Hall of Fame-bound slugger, arguably the best softball player ever produced in this province, one who was among the world’s best hitters —maybe the best — at the height of his game, hung up his cleats following last year’s league city league championship series. That was after he led his team to the title with a three-run homer in a Game 7 win over Imagewear Custom Apparel.
“He’s such a clutch hitter, such a veteran presence, he brought stability to the lineup,” says Bull & Finch player-coach Joey Maynard. “You don’t replace Colin Abbott.”
Abbott’s final season also included a St. John’s Day title and provincial crown with Bull & Finch, as well as a national championship as a player-coach with 3 Cheers Pub Bud Light.
Abbott leaves big shoes to fill — some might suggest no one player can match his accomplishments — but if there is one player who is already on his way to carving out a career that could stand alongside Abbott’s, it’s Shane Boland.
While Boland has already played 94 games as a junior-aged player in the senior circuit — sporting a fine .291 batting average with 11 homers, not to mention an all-star honour and golden glove award last season — this will be his first full campaign as a senior after being drafted by the Kelly’s Pub Molson Bulldogs with the first pick in the league draft.
“He’s probably the most accomplished fastpitch softball player at an early age,” Bulldogs veteran catcher John Farrell said of the 22-year-old.
“He’ll play a major role in any winning our team does this year.”
Boland is coming off an amazing year in which he became the first Canadian player to win an International Softball Congress title and national junior and senior championships in the same season. He also helped his Goulds club team to a St. John’s intermediate league championship, while also becoming the first player in the circuit’s eight-year history to win the triple crown of batting.
The only other notable shakeup heading into the 2013 campaign was a mid-winter trade that saw Bulldogs’ veterans Dougie Marshall and Darrell Walsh, along with the team’s first-round draft pick next year, sent to 3Cheers Pub Bud Light for the services of Mark Lewis, Wayne Bruce and a pair of second-round draft picks (2013 and 2014).
The move was a hard one for Farrell, especially, who had been teammates with Marshall and Walsh going back to their early days with the Labatt Blues team that was the foundation for today’s Bulldogs.
“The trade happened primarily because Mark Lewis was looking to leave 3 Cheers and he is good buddies with most of our team, with us all being from Conception Bay Central area, aside from Shane Boland,” Farrell said. “With Boland coming in and having another good middle infielder in Shane O’Brien, we could afford to let Dougie Marshall go.
The veteran Walsh was thrown in at 3 Cheers’ request, despite playing only five games last season.
“Selfishly, I only hope he doesn’t play any more games than he did last year,” Farrell admits.
“He is the best player that I have played with in my career and has all the numbers to prove it. It will be strange playing against him this year if he is around.”
Following a tightly-contested regular 2012 season and with few changes for the league’s four senior teams, as well as the bulk of the reigning national junior champion Kelly’s Pub Junior Canadians returning, parity should reign again this season.
The season opens with 3 Cheers taking on Bull & Finch 1 p.m. Sunday, followed by a 3 p.m. game featuring the Bulldogs and NL Plumbing and Heating, formerly Imagewear Custom Apparel.
2013 team-by-team preview
A capsule look at how the five teams in the Molson St. John’s Senior Softball League stack up on the eve of the 2013 season, which is scheduled to begin Sunday afternoon at Lion Park:
Kelly’s Pub Molson Bulldogs
2012 record: 13-11
Coaches: Ron Ezekiel and Jim Dunphy
Who’s back: Sean Cleary and Blair Ezekiel are back to anchor the Bulldogs’ pitching rotation, but as they have in previous years, the duo will miss parts of the summer playing ISC ball, leaving Donny Cleary and Liam Myers to pitch a number of weekends with Farrell and Stephen Strapp behind the plate. Former league MVP Jon Kelly returns to patrol the outfield with Andrew Wade and Scott Myers, while last year’s most improved player, Shane O’Brien, and Gary Bruce are back on the right side of the infield. Bruce, however, will move to shortstop when Boland is travelling.
Who’s gone: Senior league veterans Doug Marshall and Darrell Walsh left by way of trade with 3Cheers Pub.
Who’s new: While the marquee acquisition was Shane Boland, the arrival of a consistent hitter and talented cornerman in Mark Lewis and the return of Wayne Bruce, who logged some time with the Bulldogs as a junior-aged player before his stint with the Junior Canadians, bodes well for the team as it tries to regain its form.
Outlook: “It was a disappointing season,” Farrell says of the 2012 campaign, “with the only good thing being the landing of the first overall pick. This year our goal, as with every year, is to win the league championship and provincial title. I feel we have a very good shot at doing this with all of our pitching staff intact. The key to us winning should come down to consistent hitting as a team, which I feel is where we have struggled in the past.”
Bull & Finch Bar & Grill
2012 record: 14-10 (Provincial champs, league champs, St. John’s Day tournament)
Coach: Hughie Clarke
Who’s back: The triple crown winners retain the bulk of their championship roster from 2012, including playoff MVP Bryan Clarke, Leon Cantwell, Stephen Jesso, Geoff Evely, and the Maynard brothers, Joey and Keith, among others. Also returning are pitchers Donny King, Mike Noftall, and Ward Gosse, the league’s all-time leader in strikeouts with 2,358 over 321 career games. Bull & Finch is also expecting to get more games from Craig Edmunds, who came over in a mid-season trade with Imagewear last summer for the rights of hurler Robbie Greene.
Who’s gone: The only player missing from the lineup, as mentioned above, is Colin Abbott.
Who’s new: Outside of draft pick Steve Brazil, who Maynard doesn’t expect will join the team, no new players are on board this season.
Outlook: “Winning all three championships was a highlight for us locally and we’d love to be able to repeat what we did,” insists Maynard. “Realistically I’m not sure if we can because you’ve got to have things go right, you’ve got to have timely hitting, but that’s what we’re striving for. Losing a stick like Colin is going to put a bit more pressure on Cantwell, Evely and Gosse.”
NL Plumbing Hitmen
2012 record: 13-11
Coach: Mark Dwyer
Who’s back: The Hitmen welcome back a pair of Canadian national team members in catcher Ryan Boland and centre-fielder Brad Ezekiel, as well as shortstop Justin Gill, who is in the 40-man national team selection pool. “They say you can measure a team by how it looks up the middle, and that’s how it is for us,” says Dwyer. “It’s just a matter of building around that.” Surrounding the three national caliber players are Sheldon Keough, veterans infielders Chris Murphy and Fergie Griffiths, former batting champ Danny Mullins, and role players like Kenny Gosse, Shawn Hefferan and Brian Roche. The pitching staff will be led by ace Robbie Greene, and veterans Sean Cadigan and Chris Hussey.
Who’s gone: Harold Kelly, seventh all-time in strikeouts and eighth overall in wins, has retired from the game.
Who’s new: Dwyer says draft picks Tyrone Fewer and Matt Power, both coming off a national junior title with Junior Canadians, “bring a winning attitude” to the team.
Outlook: “We were average at times last year and didn’t accomplish what we felt we could. We want redemption this year. With guys like Boland and Ezekiel on the team, guys who are used to winning, anything less isn’t good enough. We won the provincial title in 2011, won a national bronze last year, and we believe we can win the provincials again this year.”
3Cheers Pub Bud Light
2012 record: 16-8 (regular season champs)
Coach: John Hill
Who’s back: Jason Hill, who last season became the first player in league history to win the triple crown of both batting and pitching, returns to anchor a hungry 3Cheers squad. Hill dominated every statistical pitching category and most from the plate, including home runs, RBI and batting average. Also returning are Kris Abbott, Sheldon Keefe, Trevor Carew, Kyle Ezekiel, Paul Maher, Matt Hill, Billy Patterson and Lee Cose.
Who’s gone: As mentioned above, Mark Lewis and Wayne Bruce departed by way of trade, and Shane Gamberg won’t return this season as he serves a 20-game suspension levied against him following an altercation with umpire Keith Pender in last year’s league semifinal against Imagewear. Abuse of officials — verbal or physical — calls for a 20-game suspension.
Who’s new: Darrell Walsh and Doug Marshall, a pair of veterans with lots to offer, arrived by trade and Cose figures both will figure heavily in the team’s success at the plate. Retirement lasted all of one summer for Keith Coady and Liam O’Keefe, both of whom are back in the mix for the 2013 season. Draftee Rylee Costello also joins the fray, as does Stephen Joy.
Outlook: “Every other year we’ve lost a ton going into the season, we were always scrambling for players. This is probably the healthiest we’ve been for numbers in a while,” says Cose, who admits the team came up short of its expectations last season. “We’re just going to go do the same thing we do every year, work hard and hopefully fare as well as did last year in the regular season.”
Kelly’s Pub Junior Canadians
2012 record: 4-20
Coach: Jeff Kirk
Who’s back: The league’s only junior-age team was fortunate to retain 11 players from last year’s national junior title winning roster, including ace Mark Power and reliable No. 2 Colin Walsh, both of whom Kirk says, “are starting to come into their own as a senior level pitchers and players.” Also back for another season are Jeff Conway, 2012 rookie of the year Daniel Dalton, Steven Dobbin, Johnny Doyle, Eddie Heffernan, Jeremy Hickey, Ryan Kirk, Troy Leonard and Jeremy O’Reilly.
Who’s gone: Graduated players include Shane Boland, Rylee Costello, Tyrone Fewer, Andrew Gale, Mark Kavanagh, Alex Power and Matt Power.
Who’s back: Kirk and company are still finalizing the roster, and it will remain that way for much of the season as the team prepares for junior nationals and the U21 Men's International Softball Championship in Saskatoon this July. Aaron Whelan and Joel Whelan have earned spots while Blair Myers and Phillip Corbett are still vying for a chance to join the team.
Outlook: “Even though we’ve lost tremendous players, I think we’re going to be more competitive statistically this year. Chances are we’ll have more wins. We’d like to improve on last year’s record and contend for a playoff spot. I think we’re good enough to do that.”