Shawn Paquette liked what he saw — and heard — at Terry Fox Sports Complex on Tuesday evening. Coach of the Sudbury Voyageurs 16U squad, Paquette has noticed a clear progression, from the moment his players got the green light for on-field training roughly two weeks ago to their final practices before their long-awaited Premier Baseball League of Ontario season opener in Ottawa this weekend.
“The velocity has gone up,” Paquette said, watching while his players ran through drills. “You hear the mitt popping a little bit more. The feet are moving a little bit faster.”
But it didn’t take long, he said, for the 15 or so youngsters on his roster to get back into game shape upon their return to the turf — a testament to their work ethic and determination to make the most of a COVID-shortened campaign that was supposed to start nearly two months earlier.
“Ninety per cent of the team was ready to go, and the ones who weren’t, weren’t too far off,” Paquette said. “It was good to see.
“Every one of these guys are locked in. They are all in with this program.”
Sixteen-year-old pitcher/centre-fielder Ryan Lacasse said he and his teammates made every effort during an extended off-season to stay physically and mentally prepared, despite the uncertainty over when play would finally commence. He was glad, these last couple of weeks, to see those efforts had paid off.
“We have been really jacked about getting back on the field, for sure,” Lacasse said. “It has been way too long. COVID really screwed us over, but I feel like we’ll be ready to go with weekend with everything we have been doing through the pandemic.
“It shows that everybody really has their heart in the sport and really wants to get back out here and show everybody what we got.”
While the 16U and 14U teams travel to Ottawa, the 18U team will host the national capital crew for a pair of doubleheaders — Saturday at noon and 2:30 p.m., then Sunday at 9 a.m. at 11:30 a.m.
With support from their coaches, who have made effective use of Zoom and other online resources during each lockdown, the Voyageurs were able to keep up their workouts, take part in team-building activities and even listen to guest speakers who helped them stay motivated.
“It actually wasn’t that hard for me, because we have been doing a lot of work with our mental conditioning coach, Brian Cain, and he has helped us a lot through the pandemic,” Lacasse explained. “I never really stopped training, because he really helped us with the mental game, grinding it out and getting ready for the season.”
There’s been little time to scout their opponents, including Ottawa, but Lacasse is confident the Sudbury squad will see some good results this season.
“I’m expecting really good outcomes this year, for sure,” he said. “We have been working hard and we have high expectations for the year, for sure.”
Wins and losses don’t necessarily determine a successful season, Paquette said — not for a program that prides itself on preparing players with aspirations of playing in U Sports or in NCAA or junior college programs south of the border.
“As long as we see these kids improve on a day-to-day basis, that’s what we’re looking for,” he said. “We did have a fairly decent fall last year, with guys we didn’t have a lot of time with. Now, we have spent some more time with them and I’m expecting to see better from them.
“Hopefully, it’s good ball. That’s all we can ask for is good competition. Without good competition, you don’t get better yourself.”