Before hosting the country’s top U19 boys teams this August, Softball Napanee will first welcome Ontario’s premier fast pitch clubs for the OASA U19 Eliminations June 15-17 at the Fairgrounds.
As 12 of the 14 teams in the field come into the weekend needing a top two finish to punch a ticket to Nationals, the Napanee AFW U19 Express already have their spot guaranteed by virtue of being the host team. Chepstow will also take part in Eliminations but have already qualified for Nationals as last year’s defending champions, having bested Napanee last summer in PEI.
Their spot may already be secured but that doesn’t mean the Express won’t have plenty to play for this weekend.
“It’s an opportunity to test yourself against the rest of the competition,” said Express head coach Bryan Brooks. “It’s kind of like a midterm report card. We feel like our team’s progressed but it’s an opportunity to get a look at everybody else and what kind of progression they’ve made.”
For the Express the eliminations will be the first major tournament since last August, when they got off to a rocky start before roaring back to win four straight to reach the gold medal game. There they fell 5-0 to Chepstow to finish as silver medalists.
“It’s not something you want to do, to be on the same field as the gold medalists and it not be you,” said Brooks. “We’re hoping the boys use that as motivation to trade places with the competition this year.”
That motivation, coupled with home field advantage could be huge.
“It’s not every year you get a chance to play at home,” said Brooks. “It’s pretty special. They’re quite familiar with the atmosphere that our town brings for major tournaments. With how tight the competition is, that could be the difference.”
Following last year’s Nationals, Softball Canada announced they’d amended the rule of eligibility, raising the event from U18 to U19. That meant every player from last year’s tournament could return for 2018.
While a handful of last year’s Express have either moved onto another team or opted not to play ball this year, the main core returns with some bantams stepping up to the midget level.
“I think overall we’re a stronger team this year than we were a year ago,” said Brooks. “We’re obviously more experienced but we expect our competition has made the same strides so this is an opportunity to test that next weekend and see what kind of work we have to do before August.”
Brooks says its an additional source of pride that the roster is made up of Napanee born players who developed through the Softball Napanee program.
The roster will consist of Alex Li, Andrew Tucker, Brendan Hagerman, Brock Fencott, Cal Doyle, Connor Brooks, Emmet Pierce, Ethan Winter, Finn Pierce, James Martell, Jason McCracken, Kael Frenburgh, Kyle Weese, Logan Bell, Riley Manion and Robbie Barker with Brooks, Jamie Thompson, John Winter and Ryan Rowe forming the coaching staff.
“They know how unique this is,” Brooks says of having so many homegrown players and having the opportunity to host Eliminations and Nationals on the same field they grew up playing on since mite. “Hopefully they’ll be that seventh plaque that’s at the Fairgrounds.”
That plaque Brooks refers to contains a list of all the players who have ever won a National title for Softball Napanee.
Rounding out the field at Eliminations will be Tara, Shallow Lake, Oshawa, Belmore, Kitchener/Waterloo, Osgoode, Caledonia, Ennismore, Baden, Tavistock, Drumbo and Ivanhoe.
Napanee’s first game will be 7 p.m. on Friday where they will face the winner of Tara and Oshawa. A win would mean their second game would take place at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The finals would go at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
Should Napanee and Chepstow finish as the top two teams in the double knockout tournament, the third and fourth place teams would qualify for Nationals, which take place Aug. 14-19.