District squad gearing up for run at fastball World Series

Dan Falloon

A crack team of the best and brightest the Rainy River District Fastball League has to offer will be taking its talents to Des Moines, Iowa this week.
Fourteen players with district ties will be heading down to the North American Fastpitch Association (NAFA) World Series to compete in the A-Major division against 39 other teams, including some from as far away as New York, Tennessee, Colorado, and Mexico.
The local squad primarily is made up of Sight & Sound Wolves players, and will adopt that moniker for the tournament.
Team manager Derek McKinnon said the district officially has been going down to the tournament since 2006, although some veterans have attended with other teams.
The squad has garnered plenty of experience through its previous trips, and this year’s edition hopes it has learned its lessons in order to be primed to make a run this time around.
“The things you get away with here, you make a little slip [down there] and a guy’s getting an extra base or an extra run,” McKinnon noted.
“You’ve just got to be really tight when you get down there.
“You’ve got to be aggressive and take your chances when you can,” he added. “If you make a mistake, you’re going to pay for it.”
Rainy River Royals pitcher Murray Armstrong, joining the Wolves for the tournament for the fourth time, agreed, noting everyone just needs to play up their abilities.
“We all know how to play the game, so it’s just a matter of not making any errors,” he reasoned.
“We held our own there, so we should be able to do okay, I think,” Armstrong added.
Sight & Sound’s John Desaulniers, who has attended the tournament about a dozen times before while living in Fargo, N.D. and Manitoba, feels optimistic about the district squad’s chances to battle through the opposition this year.
“It’s not going to be easy. It never is,” he stressed. “But we’ve got a team to stick in there right to the end if our bats show up.
“We have to ability to finish top five very easily,” he predicted.
But the trap for teams is set early in the tournament.
“The first two games are huge,” said Desaulniers, who lives in Dryden but suits up for Fort Frances-based Sight & Sound as much as possible.
“If you don’t win your first two games, you’re looking at having to run the gauntlet, like seven or eight games in a row you have to win,” he explained.
That first game, which this year will come tomorrow afternoon against the Westerville Capitals of Ohio, has never been a strong point for district teams heading down to the tournament, which Barwick Knights’ catcher Kevin Gemmell said will have to change this year.
“The biggest thing we’ve got to do is win our first game,” stressed Gemmell, who led the RRDFL with eight home runs during the regular season.
“In past years, we haven’t won that first game and we just get behind the eight-ball after that.
“We’ve brought a couple teams before where I think we really could make a run at it and win ’er, but we kind of lost that first game,” he remembered.
Last year, the Wolves tried valiantly to overcome an opening 6-3 loss to Scarlett’s of Sioux Falls, S.D., reeling off three in a row before bowing out with a 3-2 loss to Farmington, Wis., who ended up in fifth place overall.
McKinnon said that when the games keep piling up, it gets difficult to manage the task at hand knowing the team could play four or five games before the day is through.
“We just kept playing back-to-back-to-back,” he recalled. “We were trying to save our pitchers a little bit and keep ’em rested up, and we ended up losing because of it, maybe, a little bit.
“We wanted to let the guy finish this game and then have fresher guys for the next game.”
According to Desaulniers, the biggest challenge will be for the Wolves to open their eyes to different hurlers given many of the players will have been fed a steady diet of the same from RRDFL play this season.
And he made it clear the adjustment will have to be made posthaste.
“It’s just a matter of adapting to different pitching,” he explained. “You get used to seeing the guys from our own league and you get adapted to seeing them all the time.
“When you get different deliveries from different guys, it’s just a matter of who adapts the quickest—and that’s usually who goes the furthest.
“If you don’t get to too many different tournaments from out of town and see the different pitching, it’s usually a game or two before you get into it and a lot of times, it’s too late,” Desaulniers warned.
Desaulniers is expected to lead the pitching staff since the Wolves only are playing in the A-Major division because of him.
The tournament bases its divisions on the quality of the pitchers it possesses. After being ranked highly as a pitcher, Desaulniers and the Wolves had to fight for his ranking to be reduced so he was allowed to pitch.
The ruling was that the team and pitcher would meet in the middle, meaning the Wolves had to move up to A-Major while Desaulniers dropped down.
“We were in ‘A,’ and they wouldn’t let me throw there, so they had me move up to A-Major,” he noted.
“We had to really, really beg to let us do that,” he added. “They usually wouldn’t let me go below ‘AA.’”
“Because there’s no league in Dryden, and he wasn’t playing much, [organizers] allowed him to drop down from ‘AA’ to A-Major,” echoed McKinnon.
Desaulniers lauded the team’s two other pitchers, Armstrong and Bob Andy of the Wolves, saying there’s not too much extra he can teach them.
Where he thinks he’ll be most needed is keeping the younger players stress-free.
“It’s just the younger guys,” he stressed. “You try to help them out a bit.
“That’s your biggest enemy right there. If you go in there nervous, you’re not going to be help to the team because you’re just going to be fighting yourself.
“It’s basically just another league game,” Desaulniers reasoned. “That’s what you try to get them to view it as, anyway.”
Gemmell, meanwhile, thinks the three men toeing the rubber will help to lead the charge—and it’ll be up to the offence to put up some run support if the team is going to challenge for the title.
“Those guys are world-class pitchers,” he remarked. “They always put us in position to win, so hopefully we can just capitalize when we get those times.”
The team also boasts Duane Carlson, Eric Carlson, Marcel Pagee, and Kurtis Wepruk (Sight & Sound), Jesse Tom and Dakota Andy (Big Grassy Braves), RRDFL alumni Donnie Gall and Trevor Oltsher, as well as Jeff Barton from Dryden.
Neither Armstrong nor Gemmell were particularly worried about team chemistry with players coming from all over.
“We all know each other, we all know how everybody is in the league,” Armstrong explained.
“Everybody knows each other and is friendly, so we all get along pretty good.”
“We all mesh together pretty good, especially after a couple of beers,” echoed Gemmell.
The trip to Iowa will pause the RRDFL playoffs in progress.
The Wolves and Knights squared off last night in Barwick to determine the last undefeated team in the double-knockout format (the outcome wasn’t known by press time).
Meanwhile, in the knockout stage, the Big Grassy Lightning and Big Grassy Braves met up, as did Rainy River and Sabaskong.
Those two winners will play each other when post-season actions resumes next Tuesday (Aug. 17), with the victor of that game then moving on to play the loser of Barwick and Sight & Sound.
That winner will play the undefeated team in the final.