Axemen building with an eye to the future
A Camrose Axemen slides back safely into first base during a game against the Sturgeon Paladins last year. File photo
Every team goes through a rebuilding process eventually, and that is what the Camrose Axemen are staring down for their 10th season in the North Central Alberta Baseball League.
There has not been much change to the Axemen roster since the club made the jump from the Powerline League to the NCABL in 2008, but those players are now starting to get to the point of retirement. Their eyes are focused squarely on the 2018 season when they hope to bring in a number of graduating midget players, but this year they know will be a challenge.
“The goal of this year is to hopefully keep the Camrose Axemen going so that in the coming years as players are graduating from minor ball and midget, they have a suitable place to play baseball in town,” said manager Kris Kushnerik.
The club started down this path last season and finished with a 9-9 record, missing the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. A few weeks ago team manager and founding member Bryan Toles announced he was hanging up the spikes and now the huge task of stewardship of the club falls to Kushnerik and other founding members like Jordan Riopel and Cal Zimmer.
“It’s looking at the game differently and being on the hook to make decisions around playing time and when to take a guy out and when to put them in,” said Kushnerik of his new role. “It will be a little bit different, more responsibility, making sure guys are having fun, staying competitive and enjoying coming out.”
There is still a bit of the unknown as to what their roster will look like when the season gets underway on May 11 in Sherwood Park against the Athletics — their home opener is May 17 at 7:15 p.m. at Harry Andreassen Field against the Sturgeon Paladins.
The biggest question mark surrounds their top pitcher and fielder Blair Mulder who is graduating from Red Deer College and likely entering the workforce, so it depends on his availability. Mulder led the Axemen in innings pitched last year with 42 2/3, earned run average (1.64), strike outs (62) and WHIP (0.98) while posting a 5-1 record. If he is not back, Shawn Noble will inherit the top spot in the rotation after throwing 40 1/3 innings, with a 6.60 ERA, a 1.98 WHIP with 25 strikeouts.
Kyle Muzechka will return as the top man out of the bullpen. The six-foot southpaw had 11 strikeouts in 10 innings, a 2.10 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP.
“In men’s baseball pitching is everything,” said Kushnerik. “If you have two to three good pitchers like we have had for the last three or four years here, you’re set up for success in a league where you play teams once, maybe twice, in a year, you can have a good arm going all the time for you.”
Mulder was also their top hitter last year with .415 average and a 1.032 OPS with eight RBI. If he is not back, the slack will have to be picked up by the likes of Riopel and Petryshyn while Paul Ofrim, Ryan Burton and Noble carry a heavier load at the plate.
There are some young guns coming up in the system that the Axemen also have high hopes for. Midgets like Jacob Kendall, Kyler Kupka, Ryan Burton and Zach Wilms and college players Matt Andreassen (University of Alberta) and Zach Bailey (Okanagan College in the Canadian Collegiate Baseball Conference) will get an opportunity with the Axemen.
“Even though they’re young, those kids are used to success,” said Kushnerik. “They’re a pretty successful group of kids that started with the 2011 peewee provincial gold medal, then they transitioned into winning a gold in 2015 in midget and then winning a silver medal in 2016. It’s all the same group of kids and we’re excited to have five, six, seven of those kids playing some capacity with the Axemen now.”
Regardless of the number of players they have coming out, being competitive will be key. If they are getting waxed every weekend, it makes it difficult to build momentum for the club and to convince others to sign up and help them fill out a roster card this year or next.
“I hope we’re able to compete for a playoff spot this year — the top four teams make the playoffs,” said Kushnerik. “We play a 16-game schedule this year so eight or nine wins will probably put you on the cusp of the fourth and final playoff spot … That would be a good first step for hopefully a new brand of Axemen baseball for the future.”
Notes — This season is also the NCABL’s 50th year of operation and will be celebrating with special all-star game in St. Albert on July 16 and a weekend of festivities in August.