The Molson St. John's Senior Men's Softball League kicks off its 54th season tonight at Lions Park.
Each team will play a 24-game schedule, plus the St. John's Day tournament and provincial championship.
Five teams will compete again this season - Kelly's Pub Molson Canadians, Kelly's Pub Junior Canadians, Lower Path Bar and Grill, West Side Charlies/Bud Light and Imagewear Custom Apparel (formerly Roebothan, McKay, Marshall).
Opening tonight at 6 o'clock is Imagewear and West Side followed by an 8 p.m. tilt between the two Canadians clubs.
Kelly's Pub Molson Canadians
Coach: Ron Ezekiel
Who's Back: Blair Ezekiel, Jon Kelly, Doug Marshall, Sean Cleary, Don Cleary and Sheldon Keefe.
Who's New: Mike Gregory, picked up in draft of players who graduated from the Kelly's Pub junior all-star team.
Who's Not: Potentially going to lose two good young players to the Kelly's Pub junior entry - Andrew Wade and Liam Myers - who played regularly with the Canadians last year. Although it's not definite, veteran third baseman Darrell Walsh looks like he won't be back this year. The team's leader for over a decade, Walsh is third all-time in hitting with a career .331 average.
Key players: Team Canada pool players Sean Cleary and Blair Ezekiel (both pitchers and hitters) and two-time triple crown winner Jon Kelly. Sean Cleary, Ezekiel and Donny Cleary give the Canadians the best pitching staff in the league. Sean Cleary (career 56-23, 2.28 ERA) is a former national junior champion and a member of Canada's national team program, while Ezekiel is perhaps the best young player in the game in Newfoundland right now.
Outlook: Kelly's is looking to three-peat as league champions, but veteran John Farrell says it won't be easy with stiff competition from other teams. The defending league champions will contend again, although work commitments may prove troublesome. Donny Cleary works offshore, and Ezekiel spends most weekends on the mainland playing with Kitchener-Waterloo (with whom he will play for at the nationals). With a full lineup, Kelly's remains the team to beat.
Kelly's Pub Junior Canadians
Coaches: Jim Dunphy and Hughie Clark
Who's back: Shane Kelly, Mike Noftall, Brad Ezekiel, Kyle Ezekiel, Shane O'Brien, Tyler McDonald, Andrew McCarthy.
Who's not: Justin Gill, Mike Gregory, Mark Lewis, Sheldon Keough. Ryan Boland and Wayne Bruce are questionable.
Key players: Brad Ezekiel, one of the top young ball players in the country, and St. John's Molson athlete of the year finalist Mike Noftall, who starred at the junior nationals last summer. Players who have been trying out for a spot on the team are Travis Rideout, Andrew Wade, Sean Mackey, Craig Edmunds, Liam Myers, Chris Hammond, Derek Stone and possibly John O'Rielly and Andrew Murphy.
Outlook: After winning it all at the Canadian juniors last summer, the Junior Canadians are in rebuilding mode, according to general manager Ross Crocker, with the loss of four veteran players and leaders who have graduated to the senior ranks. The biggest loss, undoubtedly, is Gill. The potential loss of Ryan Boland and Wayne Bruce will leave a big hole in this year's team as both players were starters and leaders, and may not play because of university studies. Still, Crocker is confident the team will be competitive with some of the best young players in the province. Kelly's will look to players like Brad and Kyle Ezekiel, Kelly, Edmunds, McDonald to step up this year and replace the departing players.
Lower Path Grill & Bar
Coach: Joey Maynard
Who's back: Andrew Evans, who had a breakthrough season last year, finishing in the top five in each hitting categories batting from the leadoff position, and veteran pitchers Robbie Greene and Donny King. Add Colin Abbott, the finest hitter Newfoundland has ever produced. Abbott is retired from competitive ball in the U.S. and with the national team, and Maynard is hopeful to have Abbott around for more games and being a major contributor for the team.
Key players: A big addition to Lower Path is veteran Ward Gosse, among the elite players to ever play in the local senior men's circuit. At 42, Gosse has seen better days, but Maynard says he is still arguably one of the best players to play in the league, "and will add to our depth both at the pitching position and at the plate." Bryan Clarke brings a solid bat to first base.
Outlook: After finishing runner-up the past two seasons at the provincials, Maynard makes it clear the team's goal this summer is to go all the way. "We've added more depth to the lineup, and hopefully that will help us when we get to the provincials and the playoffs. Anything short of a championship this year will be disappointing," he said.
Imageware Custom Apparel
(formerly Roebothan McKay and Marshall)
Coach: Mark Dwyer
Who's back: Returning is veteran pitcher Harold Kelly (10th all-time with 1,237 strikeouts), along with former league and provincial batting champion Mark Dwyer, as well as former league batting champion and star centrefielder Danny Mullins, who'll anchor the offense. Veteran Joe Fagan, the all-time leader in games played at 556, returns.
Who's not: The biggest loss is Ward Gosse. Also gone is second baseman Ed McDonald, a perennial all-star throughout his career. McDonald was dealt to West Side Charlies in exchange for veteran catcher Sam Oliver.
Key players: The key acquisitions include junior graduates Justin Gill and Sheldon Keough, both of whom helped lead the province to two national junior titles over the past four years. Gill, a shortstop, was taken first overall in the league draft, while Keough, the third pick, was taken from Lower Path in exchange for Gosse's rights. Gill, who will hit in the leadoff position, is one of the best young players in the game, provincially and nationally. Senior player of the year for 2009, he was an all-star at the national junior tournament and also starred at the senior nationals. Keough, meanwhile, hit an impressive .388 in senior play last year.
Outlook: After finishing last overall with a 5-17 record in league play last year, Dwyer, who will scale back his playing to concentrate on coaching, acknowledges there's nowhere to go but up. "Pitching and timely hitting will be key," said the Ozzie Guillen of the senior men's softball circuit. Kelly, Sean Cadigan and big left-hander Chris Hussey will form the pitching staff. Gill will anchor the defence at short and provide spark at the top of the lineup.
Westside Charlies/Bud Light
Coaches: Hal Rice and Liam O'Keefe
Who's back: Shane Boland, Jason Hill, Lee Cose, Chris Maher, Ryan O'Neill, Steve Mullaley, Mark Lewis (obtained in the junior overage draft).
Who's not: Sam Oliver (traded to RMM), Craig Edmunds and Travis Rideout (both with Kellys Pub juniors).
Key players: Mullaley, who started for Canada at last year's world championship, leads the offence, along with pitcher/outfielder Hill, who has won an ISC championship and is a former all-world all-star. There's also former national junior team members Chris Maher and Ryan O'Neill, not to mention the province's youth player of the year for 2009, Shane Boland. Boland, an infielder, starred for Canada at last year's junior tournament, and won an all-star at the national junior championship for Kelly's Pub Junior Canadians.
Outlook: West Side, which might boast the best young team in the league, is anxiously looking forward to the 2010 season, Cose says, following a disappointing 8-14 2009 campaign. "We have a solid group of veterans and youth, and a well-balanced offence that will give us a chance to win every night," Cose said. Hill and Mullaley are playing in the U.S. this summer, but will not miss as much time as the last few years. Both are playing with a team called NY/Dominican. They will be around for all tournaments and the majority of league games, Cose said. This club will travel to the national senior tournament later this summer.