Varsity

St. Clair’s dynasty on the diamond

on

By Zach Mulder

When Kyle Breitner set foot on the dewy grass of the baseball diamond he’s called home for the past five seasons, it was in a very different role than the one he was used to.

A former pitching ace for the St. Clair Saints men’s baseball team, Breitner accumulated over 300 strikeouts in his OCAA pitching career. Now, he has transitioned into the role of pitching coach for the team.

“It sucks not being able to get into the game, not being able to get the job done yourself,” says Breitner. “But I try to help them, give them my experiences and what’s helped me. Just coaching them.”

At the beginning of every OCAA season, teams prepare to make their run for the championship. For some, it’s more fantasy than reality. For others, an OCAA championship title is almost an expectation. And for a select few teams, their history of success is so prolific that anything other than first place can be seen as a disappointment.

One of the teams who find themselves in this situation are the St. Clair Saints men’s baseball team, who have won the OCAA title for five consecutive years. This five-year span encompasses every season since the OCAA introduced baseball as one of their league sports.

Five teams were a part of that opening year. St. Clair, Durham, Seneca, Humber and George Brown all stepped up to bat. But because this was the first season, teams didn’t know what to expect. There was little pressure, and a clean slate for everyone.

“Our main goal was to win everything for sure,” says Breitner. “Going in there that first year we didn’t know how what we had was going to hold up to the competition of other teams.”

However, it didn’t take long for the Saints to separate themselves from the competition and cruise their way to 14 wins and two losses in the season, capturing the first OCAA baseball championship over the Durham Lords.

“It was kind of interesting for the first couple weeks but once we played everybody I think we knew pretty quickly that we had a far better team and we were above the competition,” says Breitner, who was statistically the best pitcher in OCAA by a wide margin.

But, while talent helps, it is not the main factor in perpetual success. In the eyes of Breitner and others on the team, that honour falls to head coach Dave Cooper, who had already been with the team for two years before the OCAA established its baseball league.

“He’s definitely the reason why St. Clair has become a talked about program within Ontario if not Canadian baseball,” says Breitner fondly. “He doesn’t just coach players, he teaches them how to win and always gets the best out of them. I’ve seen it for five years, he turns average ball players into good ball players. I’m fortunate to have learned from him.”

Yet for Cooper, the success of the team comes down to one simple thing.

“In the end you can say you’ve won this or you’ve won that, you expect to win or you don’t expect to win, but it all gets down to who’s going to work the hardest,” said Cooper. “You need talent, and if you get the talent and put them to work, that’s what my teams have done over the years.”

The following season saw Fanshawe throw their hat in the mix and field a team, bringing the total number of teams in the league to the six that compete today. The addition of a new team did nothing to slow St. Clair down.

They breezed their way to a 19 win and one loss season, improving on their record from the year before and capturing gold once again. This pattern continued with a perfect 20-0 season the next year. The Saints won the next three OCAA championships as well.

But with success comes pressure. A pressure to maintain the standard you’ve set, a pressure to continue the title streak. And, in the world of college sports, your players are on the clock. Each athlete is given, at most, five years of eligibility. After those five years are done, they can’t play in the OCAA again.

“We’ve been fortunate to have a good piece of our roster hang in there,” says Cooper. “Last year was the biggest turnover we’ve had, and we started six rookies.”

While pieces of that roster, such as Breitner, stayed with the team for their entire five years, the team has a completely different look than it did in year one. With another eight rookies on the roster this year, no players are left from that first championship season. Despite this, the Saints have been able to use their success and the baseball programs around them to keep the quality of players on the team high.

“They were rookies in the OCAA but there were a lot of players that came up through some good organizations,” says Cooper. He says that Windsor is “a hotbed of baseball,” with the Tecumseh Thunder and the Windsor Selects program. Both programs feed the Saints’ team. “Those two programs are top in Ontario. When you’re getting a lot of these kids out of there, they’re coached properly and it’s easy for them to step right in.”

Another aspect key to the Saints excellence is the support they get from administration. That’s where Ted Beale comes in. As the athletic coordinator for the team, Beale handles everything from travel and lodging for away games to making sure the athletes have all the equipment they need.

For Cooper, that administrative support is a big draw when selling the team to potential recruits. First class travel, nice hotels, free equipment from cleats to helmet and scholarships that are the cream of the crop.

“Our kids are spoiled,” says Cooper appreciatively. “They run this like a triple-A franchise.”

But with that level of support comes a pressure that’s hard to find elsewhere. The expectations are high, and the players are given the tools to reach their goals. For some, though, that pressure is a reason to steer clear of St. Clair.

“A lot of kids shy away because they’re not so sure they’ll start or play,” says Cooper. “The teams we put on the field, you’ve got to be an experienced player.”

Saint Clair baseball’s history of success shines brightly, but for Cooper the focus is squarely on the next game. While the past is something to be proud of, complacency is detrimental to success. For a dynasty to endure there needs to be motivation, something to push you to live up to the hype and the pressure.

“I don’t get the pressure so much. I’ve been around the block a million times, I’ve won more than you can ever imagine,” says Cooper. “It’s not the excitement now as much as it hurts more to think you’re losing, that you might lose.”

“You have to prove yourself. You have to prove yourself every year because nobody remembers what happened yesterday.”

On Oct. 20, 2018 the Saints’ title streak came to an end. They lost to the Humber Hawks in the finals of the OCAA championship. The season saw them trailing the Hawks in the standings for most of the year; the Saints finally met their match. But if history has shown one thing, it’s that being knocked off the top is the best motivation for getting back there.

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