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Barrhead Orioles swinging for the NCABL playoffs

North Central Alberta Baseball League gearing up for its 57th consecutive season
Barrhead Orioles catcher Lee Worbec prepares to throw to third base during a 2023 NCABL game against the Westlock Red Lions.

BARRHEAD/WESTLOCK - The pandemic was difficult for many but particularly challenging for amateur sporting leagues.

That is what long-time North Central Alberta Baseball League (NCABL) commissioner Paul Riopel told the Town & Country This Week, a week before the Barrhead Orioles and St. Albert Cardinals play the first game of the season at the Barrhead Sportsgrounds on May 8 to launch its 57th consecutive season.

"When COVID came, we took a big, big hit," he said. "Don't ask me why or how, but in one year, we went from having eight teams to five, losing three city franchises," he said.

The NCABL is a senior 'AA' amateur baseball league established in 1968, a notch or two below single 'A'. Over the years, the number of franchises has ranged from a high of 13 to a low of four, which it has reached twice.

However, Riopel believes the NCABL is on the upswing, noting they've added a sixth team, the Legal Primeaus and were close to adding a seventh team.

"They were not quite ready, but they should be prepared to go next season," he said.

One of the reasons why Legal can make a return to the NCABL after a lengthy absence Riopel said, is due to the strength of the minor baseball program that they were able to carry on to the U18 level.

"A little town like Legal has two U18 teams, and now they have enough players graduating from the midget program to keep their older players at home.

Joining the Primeaus are Westlock's Red Lions, the Barrhead Orioles, the St. Albert Cardinals, the Edmonton Reds and the Parkland Twins.

The addition of Legal will allow for a 20-game regular season — the playoffs, with the semi-final best-of-three-game matchups on Aug. 10 and 11 at Westlock's Keller Field.

As always, the top four teams make the playoffs, which has not varied in over 20 years, regardless of how many franchises are in the NCABL. The NCABL all-star game is on July 21 at Westlock's Keller Field.

Following a two-week break, the two semi-final winners will jointly host the championship series, another best-of-three series. The opening game will be hosted by the team that scored the most points during the regular season.

At the end of the 2023 season, Riopel said he wanted to see the NCABL return to its small-community roots, which is another reason why he is so pleased to see Legal come back into the fold.

"The league was originally founded in the rural communities of north-central Alberta. That is our birthplace," he said. "Every small village had a club. There were the Barrhead Orioles, the Linaria Flyers, the Fawcett Pirates, the Rochester Lions, the Athabasca Royals, and the Vimy Blues."

In fact, at more than one point in the league's history, some small communities, including Barrhead, had more than one team.

For two seasons, in 2001 and 2002, Ripoel recalled that Barrhead fielded the Orioles and the Yankees.

"The young star on the Yankees, Lars Davis [from Grande Prairie,] went on to play semi-pro," he said. Davis, a catcher, was drafted by two MLB teams, first by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2003 in the 49th round and then by the Colorado Rockies in 2007 in the third round, played seven years of professional baseball, including a significant amount of time with the Rockies AAA affiliate, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

Riopel noted the main reason the Yankees joined the league was that the coach of Barrhead's Midget 'AAA' squad, Keith Van De Keere, opted to put the Yankees into the NCABL instead of the' AAA' NorthWest League to better prepare his team for the 'AAA' U18 Provincial Championship.

"That was unprecedented back then," he said. "And it worked. His team went on to win the provincial championship in St. Albert in 2002."

Van De Keere also pitched in the NCABL for the Barrhead Blue Jays and went on to play for Team Canada in multiple international competitions.

As for this season, Riopel said he is looking forward to seeing some very competitive games, adding just like the number of teams, the quality of play varies from year to year.

"The calibre of play is also on the rise. It will be a fun season, and games will be up for anyone to grab," he said.

Riopel added even though Legal is an expansion team, he believes they will turn a few heads, saying the Primeaus will have a couple of players who played at the collegiate level on their roster, and although Barrhead has had a rough time of it since their return to the NCABL, two years ago, noticed a marked improvement from throughout last season, to the point where they were able to edge out Fort Saskatchewan for the final playoff spot.

Riopel also said the Westlock is always in the mix, calling the Red Lions a "textbook" franchise.

"They've always done things well, with good coaching and a balanced roster with veterans, sophomores, and rookies, even though they have never carried a huge bench," he said. "Then, of course, there is St. Albert, last year's champions.

Barry Kerton,

Barry Kerton

About the Author: Barry Kerton

Barry Kerton is the managing editor of the Barrhead Leader, joining the paper in 2014. He covers news, municipal politics and sports.
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