The Trail Little League All-Star team showed that hard work, character, and commitment can take you a long way, and at the BC Little League Major Baseball Championships this week, it almost took them all the way.
Led by coaches D. J. Ashman, Jason Startup, and Mike Boisvert, a plucky Trail team comprised of ballplayers from throughout the Kootenays made an unbelievable run to the final of the provincial championship in North Vancouver on the weekend, going 5-and-2 in the round robin before bowing 3-2 to Whalley in the tournament finale.
“It’s been a long time since Trail has even made it this far,” said Ashman. “But it always hurts. If we lost 10-0 or 3-2 like we did, it probably hurts more being that close because nobody was giving us a chance to do that, because they (Whalley) had walked through everyone during the tournament.”
The Trail All Stars came within a swing of the bat from a provincial victory. Trailing 3-1 with one out in the bottom of the sixth inning, Marshall Debruyen walked and Bryce Sookro doubled off Whalley relief pitcher Halden Letzing to put runners on second and third. The six-foot-two hurler had allowed just one hit prior to the match and had struck out 17-of-22 batters faced during the tournament. Will Doerksen, who had homered three times in the championship, came to the plate as the winning run.
The Kimberley native made contact and scored Debruyen on the fielder’s choice to make it 3-2, while advancing Sookro to third. However, Letzing bore down and threw three straight strikes by the Trail batter for the final out, and a heavy sigh of relief from the Whalley faithful.
Going into the final, the Lower Mainland team was 7-0 and had not scored less than 10 runs in a game the entire tournament. They outscored the opposition 88-14, including a 20-8 thrashing of New Westminster in the semifinal; while Trail exacted revenge on Highlands from a 9-6 loss in the round robin by trouncing them 16-2 in the other semi.
Sookro was a wizard on the mound and at the plate in Sunday’s final. After Whalley jumped out to a 1-0 lead, the Nelson native stepped up to the plate and launched a solo shot to tie it 1-1 in the bottom of the second inning.
Whalley then loaded the bases in the third, and scored a run on catcher’s interference for a 2-1 lead, that stayed that way until the top of the sixth when a deep drive to right field put Whalley’s Ethan Hein on third base. With Doerksen on the mound in relief for Sookro, a sacrifice fly out to centrefield scored Hein, but Doerksen ended the inning with a strike out and infield pop-up to keep it close.
Sookro pitched five solid innings giving up three runs on five hits, two walks, and four strikeouts, while going 2-for-3 at the plate with a double and a home run.
Trail opened the provincials with wins against New Westminster and Beacon Hill, and a loss to Highlands. After dropping Thursday’s match to Whalley, Trail finished off the round robin with a pivotal 11-4 victory over North Van Central on Friday to finish in second place in round-robin standings and face Highlands in the semifinal.
The Trail All Star bats exploded in the semis belting seven homeruns, including two each from Izaak Knight and Darrin Issel, and single round-trippers from Debruyen, Sookro, and Doerksen in the 16-2 drubbing.
“I told the kids before the game, ‘We have unfinished business with these guys. They beat us 9-6 in the round robin, but we can hit their pitching. They throw a lot of curveballs, we just have to sit back and get our stride away early.’ And they did it, we teed off on some curveballs.”
Trail jumped out to a 6-0 lead and never looked back as Issel threw five innings giving up two runs on six hits, two walks and five strikeouts. Issel and Debruyen went 3-for-3 at the plate, while Sookro, Knight and Doerksen each went 3-for-4, and between the five of them, drove in 15 of the 16 runs.
“Words can’t express how well these guys played, I’m just so happy for the kids,” said Ashman. “It’s hard to talk about it, because it’s so emotional.”
The experience lands in once-in-a-lifetime territory for the team of players from Nelson, Castlegar, Trail, Kimberley, and Fruitvale. In addition to the roller coaster of competitive baseball, the team also shared special outings and team-bonding moments. For Ashman and the coaching staff, it helps validate a program they began about nine years ago, and the silver medal is a silver lining for which all should be proud.
“It’s a long grind, but we stayed our course, we had fun, we kept the kids loose, and that was our MO right from the beginning,” said Ashman. “We were never going to push the kids, we’re going to let their abilities do the talking, and it was just awesome to be a part of it.”
The match up was also an historic one for both Trail and Whalley with each team having won five Canadian Championship and represented Canada at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.. The last time Trail made the provincial final was when Boisvert played for the Trail team in 1997 and lost to Whalley in the final.
Coincidentally, the last time Trail won the tournament was in 1990 when Ashman played with a Jason Bay led team that went on to capture the Canadian championship and advance to the Little League World Series.
The Trail All Stars would also like to thank all the support from the Kootenay community that sent messages of support through social media, texting, and phone calls and the many who even attended the games and cheered on the team.