The Sight & Sound Wolves were all too familiar with the role of the hunter in recent seasons.
Now they’ll get to know what it’s like to be the hunted.
The Wolves claimed the Rainy River District Fastball League title last year for the first time since 2011 with a heart-pounding 2-1 series victory in the best-of-three final against the defending champion Barwick Blue Knights.
Barwick shortstop Vaughan Wilson said it was a good lesson for the Knights to bring into the new season.
“Going undefeated in the regular season last year was a pretty impressive accomplishment when you consider how many times our younger players were called upon to step up,” he noted.
“For me, the fact that we went undefeated in the regular season made the loss in the finals a little harder to swallow,” Wilson admitted.
“The three-game series we played against Sight & Sound was one of the most intense stretches of ball I’ve ever played in and after three games, the difference was one run,” he noted.
“Hopefully that atmosphere galvanized some of our younger players and made us older guys hungry for another shot at it; I know there are a few instances I would absolutely love to have back from Game 3.
“One of my old bosses always used to say, ‘The devil is in the details,'” Wilson added. “When you lose a three-game series by one run, that makes a lot of sense.
“We’ll work on some of the basics so we can fall back on small ball to scratch out that extra run when we need it, like with the sacrifice bunt that won us Game 2 when it got away from them,” he reasoned.
The Wolves return a battle-tested core led by the right arm of ace John Desaulniers, who put the Wolves on his back and carried them through when it was needed during the playoffs.
That goes against the norm in Wilson’s view of what he considers is more of a hitters’ league right now.
“In the middle to late ’90s, the RRDFL was a pitchers’ league with guys like Marty Brown, Murray Armstrong, John Desaulniers, Warren Voth, Bob Andy, Greg Wilson, George Oltsher, etc.,” he remarked.
“These guys were all game-changers and they played in a league with only six or seven teams.
“We have some really great pitching in our league right now, too,” Wilson stressed. “Just look how Johnny [Desaulniers] shut us down completely last fall.
“But that talent is spread out over 14 teams.
“I’ve seen guys in our league go up against some of the best pitching in Canada and the U.S., and send those teams packing,” he added.
“We have some world-class offensive talent in this area; I’ll call it a hitters’ league right now.
“But if a few of those young pitchers out there decide to dig a little deeper, the potential is there for two or three of them to become some of the best in central Canada,” Wilson said.
In fact, it’s the youth movement that has Wilson so optimistic about the direction the RRDFL is heading.
“Our league is getting younger and younger every year and that’s a good thing,” he remarked
“With the youth baseball program we had a few years ago in Emo, and the Little League involvement of the Fort Frances kids, as well as the Rainy River area students being able to play high school baseball in Baudette, the young guys trying to find a place to play in our league are pretty well-equipped,” he noted.
“We have a few teenaged players who are absolute freaks when it comes to the physical aspect of the game–I can’t wait to see them play into their 20s.
“The future looks bright for our league,” Wilson reiterated. “But if there is one area in which I feel we have room for growth, it’s pitching.”
Wilson was open about his thoughts regarding two noteworthy absentees this coming season–one due to tragedy, the other due to retirement.
Fort Frances Braves’ first baseman Linden Indian of Big Grassy First Nation passed away in January from a sudden illness that took his life at just 26 years of age.
“Everyone knew Linden was a great ball player, but I think his gamesmanship was what stood out the most to me,” recalled Wilson, whose Knights beat Indian’s Rainy Lake Pirates in the league final in 2015.
“He moved around first base as well as anyone I’ve seen in our league for a long time, and he would pull out every trick in the book to beat you.
“But after the game, or even during a lull over at first base, he always had a comment or a joke that would bring on that one-of-a-kind laugh,” Wilson added about Indian, who will have a scholarship in his name presented at the graduation ceremonies at his alma mater of Sir Winston Churchill High School in Thunder Bay next month.
“That’s what it’s all about in my books.
“It’ll be different without him, for sure, but that’s a pretty tight group of guys over there on the Braves and they’ll make him proud.”
And stepping away from behind the plate is longtime umpire Carey Gosselin, who won respect league-wide for his many years of meritorious service.
“After Game 3 [of the final] last year, I made a point of shaking Carey’s hand and thanking him for everything he’s done throughout the years,” said Wilson.
“He’s been around the league forever,” he added. “I remember him playing for Sight & Sound when I was a teenager and he was once a Blue Knight.
“He was one of the most dependable umpires out there and he really loves the game,” lauded Wilson.
“He has set an example for the newer umpires in the league and any of us guys who will probably never really completely walk away from the RRDFL.”
The league remains a 14-team circuit this season with seven teams in each of the West and East divisions.
The Big Grassy Lightning folded, but were replaced by the Sabaskong Goldeneyes, who join the Sabaskong Cubs and Lakers to create the league’s only three-team community.
Kevin Copenace will lead the Cubs on the mound as they try to find some consistency after using six different starters last year while Eagle Copenace is the team’s top power threat.
Kyle Copenace and Merlin Kelly were a talented tandem on the mound for the Lakers, with the former also leading the club in homers.
Youth will be the buzzword for the Rainy River Royals, led by all-star outfielder Connor Wall, while pitcher Chris Stone will look to bounce back from a tough season.
The same theme applies to the Stratton Eagles.
Pitcher Jackson Arpin, and solid-hitting types like Jake Vandenbrand, Logan Jackson, Chris Bourgeois, and the league’s only female player in shortstop Shelby Nosan, is taking more and more of the load off veteran hurlers Guy Arpin and Murray Armstrong.
One of the best right-handers in the league, Jeff Morrison, makes his way from the Manitou Thunderbirds to the Dawson Tigers.
As it stands now, that gives the Tigers a formidable 1-2 mound punch of Morrison and Matt Comegan, who was a stellar 12-4-1 last season and also cranked seven homers while being backed by the offensive exploits of Matt Anderson and Matt Godin, as well as the former Big Grassy father-son free-agent duo of Chris and Austin Jack.
But the rest of the West still has some work to do to chase down Barwick, which boasts the top pitching duo in the division–and arguably the whole league–in JJ Landry and Brandan Pratt.
That’s not to mention the super-charged offence led by catcher Kevin Gemmell, who slugged nine homers a year ago, along with Wilson, Pearce Jackson, and DJ Mosbeck, as well as speed-to-burn centre-fielder Ryder Woolsey.
In the East, Desaulniers’ presence looms large both on the rubber (12-2-1) and at the plate (nine homers).
He has no shortage of help with ball blasters like Matt Dunne, Duane Carlson, Kurtis Wepruk, and whisper-quick outfielders Aaron Caul and Matt Sweigard.
The Braves, meanwhile, will try to rally around the memory of Indian–and have great potential to do so.
They can send to the mound an intimidating combination of Jaden Gustafson (12-0) and Travis Tom while catcher Cole Tymkin even proved his worth in the other half of the battery with two late-season pitching victories.
Finding a weak spot in the Braves’ batting order is tough as they can strike at almost any time.
That includes Tom (nine homers) and his brother, Jesse, as well as the booming bats of Tymkin, Mike Parisien, and Dakota Andy, who makes a habit of turning singles into doubles with his extra gear on the basepaths.
The Couchiching Raiders were one of the big stories of last year’s playoffs, eliminating the Braves before pushing Sight & Sound to the limit in the East final.
Sheldon Kelly Sr. was dynamite on the mound in the post-season and gives Couchiching a chance to win every time he toes the rubber.
It doesn’t hurt that the Raiders’ offence has abundant weapons such as team home-run leader Faron Morrisseau, clutch-hitting Chad Smith, and reliable lead-off hitter Ryan McDonald.
Windey’s Warriors are led by energetic veteran pitcher Rob McGinnis, who belted five homers last year.
Centre-fielder Nick Hunter and always-dangerous third baseman Jeremiah Windego also can swing the aluminum with effective results.
Manitou will be bolstered by the pick-up of accomplished veteran Mike Jourdain, who, with Morrison gone, comes over from Couchiching to join a pitching staff led by Dan Servello.
Northwest Bay again will feature two teams: the more-experienced Chieftains and the younger Juniors.
The Chieftains go as Darren and Don Smith go, with the two handling the majority of the pitching chores, as well as co-leading the team last year with four homers apiece.
As for the Juniors, they started out very rough at 0-12 last season but won three of their last six games, including an upset of the Wolves.
Tanner Smith accounted for two of those victories on the mound while the Juniors will hope to get offence from the likes of Ben Smith, Wade Johnson, and Dan Andy.
The regular-season schedule was not released as of press time but it’s likely the league will begin play next Tuesday (May 16).