The bantam AAA St. Albert Cardinals haven’t missed a beat with only three returnees from last year’s Tier 1 provincial finalists banging the drum.
“We have a much younger team this year than we’ve had the last couple of years. We’ve got six first-year guys so obviously there has been some growing pains but they’re really talented athletes and really mature for their age,” said Sean Erikson, head coach of the 19-10 Cardinals. “We’ve had some ups and downs but they’ve really impressed me with how far they’ve come and quite frankly where they were at to begin with.”
Providing veteran leadership are Marc Brisson, Carson Ironside and Chase Visser from the 2017 Cardinals, 24-9 in the Alberta Baseball League, 3-2 at provincials and 1-4 at westerns.
“It’s been great so far,” Ironside said. “We’ve come together as a team pretty well. I like the way we’re playing.”
Is Ironside surprised by the team’s winning ways?
“Maybe a little bit but Sean is a pretty good coach and the boys are all athletes so we just go out there and do it kind of thing,” said the catcher and utility infielder.
The Cardinals are more finesse than bangers.
“Last year, we were a bigger gang, we had a lot of power on the bats, and this year, we definitely bunt a lot more and beat out their speed. We’ve also got a lot of speed in the outfield so definitely our speed is stronger,” Ironside said.
Erikson agreed. “We’ve been really strong on the mound but honestly our number one strength every day is we’re fast. We’ve got a ton of speed and we’ve been able to assert our will on the bases and set the tone with that,” said the dugout boss for the 2016 Baseball Alberta champions and fourth-place finishers at the U15 Baseball Canada championship. “So we’ve been able to pitch and run the bases and if we play defence or hit we’re golden and if we do both we’re flying.
“Obviously speed translates into defence so we’ve got the potential to be a very strong defensive team especially come provincial time at the start of August and then anything with the hitting is a bonus at that point.”
Ironside has the best bird’s-eye view of what the Cardinals are bringing from the mound.
“We’ve got great pitching. Everet Stewart went down last game with a broken arm but he’s been phenomenal all year. Kelan Polard came out from Jasper and he’s been lighting it up and Jack Hudson, a first year, his curveball is amazing. He can really show it,” Ironside said.
Hitting wise, “Our guys are coming around,” said Erikson, who liked what he saw when the Cardinals played five games in four days while facing some quality pitchers with the Parkland Twins (14-2), Camrose Cougars (8-11) and Okotoks Dawgs Black (14-4).
“That was huge for us just to get a chance to see those arms. A couple of guys definitely have some of the best fastballs in the province so it was great to kind of test ourselves against that,” Erikson said of the team’s 3-2 showing. “You see a lot of a mix of pitching in this league so it’s easy to think you have a good weekend against some softer pitchers and you think you’re happy where you’re at but to test yourself against some of the best guys and know we can put some good swings on them it’s going to give our guys a lot of confidence going into tournaments that we’ve got coming up.”
The results were Thursday’s 13-1 loss to Parkland in Spruce Grove and at Legion Memorial Park 13-6 over Camrose and 8-5 against Okotoks on Saturday and the 10-3 loss to Okotoks and 9-4 win against Camrose on Sunday.
Among the key contributors was Brisson, who is back on the diamond after his appendix blew up.
“He’s been rounding back into form and he had a great weekend for us at shortstop,” Erikson said. “He especially had a great game against the Okotoks Dawgs, who we were able split with. Obviously that’s been a big rival for us. We’ve played them the last two years in the provincial finals so it was good to take the first game of the series from them and kind of set that tone against them for the rest of the summer.”
Okotoks is the New York Yankees of Alberta baseball.
“There is no better feeling than beating Okotoks Black,” Ironside said. “The boys were great. I don’t think we made an error even. We were just hitting the ball and we saw their pitcher well.”
Polard, who arrived from the 2017 Tier IV bantam AA champion Jasper Bears, “pitched a gem,” Ironside said.
“He’s been one of our standout players,” Erikson added.
Ironside, 15, is no slouch either.
“He’s been anchoring us in the middle of the lineup and as a catcher and middle infielder he’s really setting the tone for us,” Erikson said.
The Cardinals are 15-9 in the provincial round, which counts for seeding at the Baseball Alberta tournament, with Sunday’s doubleheader on tap against the Sherwood Park Athletics (13-11) at 12 and 3 p.m. at Centennial Park.
“We have to keep on getting better. We’ve got tournaments coming up so we have to be ready for those and kind of measure ourselves against the B.C. teams and the teams down in Okotoks,” Ironside said of the July 1 long weekend in Okotoks and the Valley of Champions, July 13 to 15 in Kelowna, as the defending champions.
The end goal is nationals, Aug. 23 to 26 at Oshawa, and Ironside believes the Cardinals have to pack more punch at the plate in order to represent Alberta.
“Some games the bats are a little low so we always have to keep our bats consistent. We have to clutch up when there are guys in scoring position and get hits from guys when we need to,” said the Grade 9 William D. Cuts student.