For mid-Island baseball fans itching to get back to the diamond for some live competition, the wait is almost over.
The Parksville Royals, North Vancouver Island’s entry in the 12-team B.C. Premier Baseball League, return to action this Sunday with an exhibition jamboree against the Nanaimo Pirates and the Victoria Eagles at Springwood Field in Parksville.
The team begins regular-season league play the following weekend in Victoria, then officially opens its home season April 16 at Springwood with a doubleheader against Nanaimo.
“This year we’ll be very young, but there’s some good kids coming into the program,” said Dave Wallace, who heads the Royals’ all-volunteer coaching staff. “We have more depth of talent than we’ve had for some time.”
The Royals’ 17-player roster is heavy on newcomers, with eight Grade 10 members and three in Grade 11.
The six Grade 12 veterans who will assume leadership roles on the field include staff ace Adam McKilliken, Jayden Sabin, Liam Janzen, Jacob Ingersoll, Matt Stevenson, and Alec MacRae, who played last year in Nanaimo.
“In our bantam program, for Grade 8-9 kids, we’re looking at some good Grade 9s coming up next year,” said Wallace. “So we should have a good core group for the next few years.”
The program draws players from Parksville, Qualicum Beach and all points north on Vancouver Island, including Courtenay-Comox, Campbell River, Port Alberni and Powell River.
Wallace said the team will also have a couple of players from the Cowichan Valley.
“Our organization probably draws from the smallest population base but the most spread out geographical area,” Wallace said.
“Our depth is always an issue, because we’re not getting 60 or 100 kids coming to try out for our team.
“Our philosophy is to develop the kids from our local area. We want to be competitive in the league, but winning is only one component of it.”
The program has struggled the last couple of years against established league teams in larger population centres, which may run their programs as much as 10 months a year.
It is essentially a business model, Wallace said, that the Parksville program would be unable to emulate due to cost and time commitments. Besides, he fundamentally disagrees with that model.
“We try to encourage our kids to play as many sports as possible,” he said. “I don’t think it’s healthy to play any one sport year-round. Exploring more things is part of being a teenager and growing up.”
That philosophy has not prevented some former Royals from moving on to play baseball at the university, college and even professional levels, Wallace said. But his emphasis is to help them develop their on-field skills while also emphasizing preparation for a university education.
“You want to go (to school) for the educational program it can provide,” he said. “And if you can play some ball while you’re there, great. Not everybody is a (pro) prospect.”
With its players spread out across a far-flung region, the first challenge for the coaches is bringing them together as a cohesive unit.
Most of the players, Wallace said, know each other from having competed through years of minor ball, and the Royals pre-season is as much about turning them into a team as it is honing baseball skills.
The Royals have been preparing for the upcoming 44-game season with practices on weekends and Wednesday evenings. They began with December workouts at the Arbutus Indoor Arena in Nanoose Bay, and the other Royals coaches recently took the players on a team-building trip to the Inside Pitch indoor facility in Bellingham.
“The guys down there were great,” said Wallace. “The kids were supposed to get some training between 5-8 p.m., but they ended up playing until almost midnight. Then they just camped out right there in the facility.”
The next day, the Royals went to nearby Joe Martin Field, home of the Bellingham Bells of the premier collegiate West Coast League.
“There was some good instruction there and it was great for the kids,” said Wallace. “From an instructional point of view, do you have to do that? Probably not. But the team bonding part, you can’t measure that.”
This Sunday’s exhibition play (April 3) at Springwood begins with the Royals facing Nanaimo at 10 a.m. That will be followed by a game matching Nanaimo against Victoria, before the Royals take the field again at 3 p.m. to face Victoria.