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National softball champs still fight for respect

September 8, 2015

St. John's, NL

National softball champs still fight for respect


Cap Tip to Blair Setford



In the history of the Canadian Senior Men's Fastpitch Championships – which dates back to 1965 – only two teams have ever won four consecutive titles. From 1975-78, it was the Victoria Bates Construction team out of British Columbia. And from 2012-15, it was Newfoundland's own players – for three years as 3 Cheers Pub and this past week as the Galway Hitmen.

Think about that. In 51 years of softball competition, two teams stand out from the pack! And one of them is full of homegrown talent!

Last week in Quebec, the Hitmen were exactly that, overpowering the competition with almost 50 runs scored. There were two games of 10 runs each, but there were also games where the team clawed back from a deficit to win late in the game. Much like the current run the Toronto Blue Jays are on – carrying a country full of baseball fans again – the Hitmen usually got the clutch hit when needed.

It was an inspiring win, punctuating an outstanding summer for players like Sean Cleary (who pitched the win in the gold medal game), Jason Hill, Brad Ezekiel and Stephen Mullaley, all of whom played with Canada's national team while winning the world International Softball Federation title AND a gold medal at the recent Pan Am Games! (Ryan Boland was on the Hitmen but could not play due to work commitments.)

'Don't question the validity of our sport. It may be hard to believe for some, but we are producing some of the best players in North America'
- Mark Dwyer

Yet instead of praising this group of young Newfoundland athletes – softballers hailing from Placentia Bay and east – as a team for all-time, there are people who are raising an eyebrow at the thought of this province winning ONE legitimate national sporting championship, never mind four!

The fact there were only six teams in the tournament – down from the 12 who would normally play - is a hot button topic for armchair athletes.

'Softball can't be in very good shape if Newfoundland wins this much,' the naysayers shout. 'The game is watered down. Nobody plays softball. The other teams couldn't have been very good.'

"Yeah, I hear it," says Hitmen head coach Mark Dwyer. "Would I like to see each province represented? Of course I would. But if there were 12 teams in that tournament, we still would have won!"

Newfoundland and Labrador team still not getting recognition

Dwyer says only two members from Team Canada did not participate in the national tournament last week, and one would have played for Newfoundland. The level of competition was so good, that a team Canada pitcher from Saskatchewan couldn't even get his team into the playoffs.

So why the lack of respect?

Some of it surely is attributable to our own Newfoundland and Labrador psyche, you know the lobster pot mentality! Who do you think you are, better than me?

Some of it is due to the fact that for years we DID take a beating at the hands of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

I remember back in the 1980s when India Bears, Celtics and Best Western Travellers (twice) won Canadian titles, and the same thought prevailed. 'Ball hockey? That's nothing but a niche sport. Nobody plays ball hockey.' (When NL Black Horse captured gold at Jack Byrne Arena back in 2010, the reaction was tremendous.)

But this province has spent the past decade or more watching athletes excel on national teams, in world class events, securing scholarships and playing pro sports. It all shows that for a small province, there is a dedicated and talented group of individuals- born and raised as Newfoundlanders – who can achieve. And succeed while living, working and playing here.

softball in field baseball yellow grass

(Shutterstock/Mejini Neskah)

Newfoundland has come close before, losing a gold medal game at home in 2007, but that team had an import pitcher. This group is homegrown. They learned the game here. They developed their skills here. Sure they play in Mainland competition with club teams scattered across Canada and the United States, but this is where they played in the Const. Moss tournament, and age group provincials.

Kelly's Pub junior team was always a contender during its heyday, from 2006 through 2012, winning twice. That laid the groundwork for the junior stars to become senior superstars.

Mullaley is considered one of the game's best. Jason Hill and Brad Ezekiel are mainstays on the national team. Boland and Cleary form a great pitching battery that led Canada this year.

But there are many more. Shane Boland. Johnny Kelly, Blair Ezekiel, Justin Gill. Names that will cause a fan to stop and watch as they step to the plate or make a great play with their glove.

"Softball is healthy and alive," Dwyer noted. "Even I find it hard to believe that there is this much young talent playing here in St. John's. We're talking about world class players like Hill, Mullaley and Cleary. It's our time now.

"Don't question the validity of our sport. It may be hard to believe for some, but we are producing some of the best players in North America.

"The sport is in good hands."

And those hands are holding another national championship.

Follow Don on Twitter @PowerPlay27