A diamond in the rough

By Taylor McKee

The 2012 season was one to remember for the University of Calgary baseball team. The Dinos finished their season on May 13 in the semifinals of the Canadian College Baseball Conference after losing to the Vancouver Island Baseball Institute in the ninth inning. The road to the semifinals, however, was unconventional.

The team’s regular season was an absolute nightmare. Winning five of their first nine games, the Dinos were off to one of the best starts in club history. Then, through a combination of tough losses, injuries and mental fatigue from a strenuous travel schedule, the Dinos lost their next 17 games and finished in last place in the conference with a record of 5-21. This earned them a fifth seed going into the national championship in Kamloops and an exceedingly tough schedule in the tournament that included matchups against the top two teams.

The Dinos head coach for six years A.J. Fystro said the team was better than their record reflected. “We always believed we had an opportunity to play better,” he said. “We knew we were better than what we had showed. We honestly believed that everyone had counted us out.”

The Dinos lost their first game in nationals 6-1 to the top seed from Lethbridge but defiantly topped the second-ranked squad from Kamloops 7-6, a team that had beaten the Dinos six-straight times during the regular season. In their third game, the Dinos shellacked VIBI from Nanaimo 16-1 and secured a berth in the semifinal. That game was essentially meaningless for VIBI, but the victory marked the first time the U of C baseball club reached the semis of a national championship. In the semifinals, Dinos third-year left-handed pitcher Riley Schaaf threw 133 pitches, 91 of them for strikes, striking out 13 VIBI batters and walking none. However, the Dinos could not hold the ninth inning lead and their championship run ended. Considering their regular season, the Dinos’s showing in Kamloops was a resounding success.

It would be difficult enough to compete with better funded baseball academies from British Columbia if baseball was the only thing Fystro and his players had to worry about. Unfortunately, off-the-field complications forced the club to deal with a myriad of problems. Due to renovations to Foothills Stadium in the wake of the departure of the Calgary Vipers, the home field for the Dinos suddenly became unusable for games or practices. This meant the Dinos played a grand total of zero home games this season and had to practice indoors.

In addition, the Dinos are a club, not a varsity team, and are therefore subjected to expenses that must be covered by the players. “It definitely is a challenge. Not a lot of people realize the struggles that some of these club teams have,” Fystro said. “Our players have to pay to participate. You can imagine the cost with us having to travel to B.C. for the first four weekends of the conference.”

In club history, the Dinos have not won more than nine games in a season, but through the hard work of the coaching staff and the commitment of the players, the program is starting to grow and develop talent at a high calibre. This year’s squad was young, featuring only two graduating players. Fystro has a lot of confidence in the talent of the Dinos moving forward.

“We knew our recruiting class was probably the best we had in the past six years and we were very high on the guys that were coming in,” Fystro said. “The growth in this program over the last six years has come to where we are not just getting the athlete that is a scholar. We are also getting to those athletic players that could possibly be going on to schools in the U.S.”

Fystro works year round, and said that he will begin recruiting as early as next weekend, which is another challenge for the U of C. The new recruits are not required to sign a letter of intent, like the system in the NCAA, guaranteeing their attendance at the U of C and prohibiting them from playing elsewhere. “If a player tells me he is coming, I just have to hope that he is,” Fystro said.

The strain of trying to develop talent while being financially hamstrung clearly weighs heavily on the mind of Fystro, who said that the purpose of the club was to give players an opportunity to succeed at the U of C or elsewhere. A huge boost for the program is the evolution of Schaaf, who Fystro believes has the talent to become a professional prospect.

“He’s a six-foot-seven left-handed pitcher. He came into our program two years ago and was 160 or 170 pounds,” Fystro said. “Now he’s a 240 pound specimen. I think this kid could be the first kid drafted straight out of our program.”

If Schaaf or any other player is drafted directly from the U of C, it would be a huge compliment to the work ethic and commitment of the team’s coaching staff, making the recruiting job a lot easier.

Clearly frustrated by the performance of his club in the regular season, the next season has already begun for Fystro who is optimistic about the future of the program.

“A lot of good things are happening and it’s definitely a work in progress every year,” Fystro said. “You just hope that somebody out there is willing to help these young men out and give them an opportunity to further their dreams.”

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