WESTLOCK – Entering their golden anniversary season, the Westlock Red Lions are looking to erase the sting of being blanked in the past three North Central Alberta Baseball League (NCABL) Championship Series and score their first league title since 2017 and 19th in the 50-year history of the club.
The senior squad kicks off its 2023 campaign in the five-team NCABL May 11 at 7 p.m. when they’ll play host to the Fort Saskatchewan Reds at Keller Field, while the Barrhead Orioles will be in town for a May 16 tilt at 7 p.m., one of only two home games for the team this month as they’ll be on the road following until June 8.
Red Lions player/manager Chris Brand, now into his 16th year with the club, said he’s looking forward to the campaign as they’ve added “three or four” new players and “some youth” to the roster and are chomping at the bit and are “really looking forward to it.”
“This year we’re hosting the league semifinal series the weekend before the fair, so when you’re hosting, you want to be playing in it. The No. 1 goal is to make the playoffs and then you never know what happens from there,” said Brand, saying they’ve had a few practices in the lead-up to opening day.
Heading into the season Brand said it’s hard to handicap the field, although he expects the reigning league champs, the Parkland Twins, to be strong as they’ve already booked a trip to Western Canadian Championships. In 2022, the Twins went 17-3 to capture the NCABL regular-season pennant, while the Red Lions finished in second at 14-6 — both were far and away the two best teams over the course of the 20-game schedule, combining for 343 runs and only allowing 121. The bottom-three teams, the St. Albert Cardinals, along with the Reds and Orioles, only scored 322 runs while allowing 542.
In the playoffs the Red Lions dominated the Reds in their semifinal series with 9-1 and 13-3 wins, while the Twins went 2-0 versus the Cardinals with an 11-1 drubbing in Game 1 of their best-of-three followed by an 8-7 squeaker to close the series. In the championship final, the Twins swept the Red Lions two straight by razor-thin 6-5 and 2-0 scores.
“With a five-team league there’s always chances for a club to pick up more players, but from experience my guess is Parkland will be one of the stronger teams and should give us a run for the money again,” said Brand. “Barrhead being in the league for a second-straight year and has a strong minor ball system and should be able to build on last year, while the Reds didn’t have a great regular season record, but they’re a team that can beat everyone and for St. Albert it always depends on their minor ball program and how grads want to play for them.”
Community key to club
The club will again be hosting a camp in conjunction with Westlock Minor Ball May 27 and hope to build on the success of last year’s event, which saw 75 young baseball players, ages five to 13, learn from seven Red Lions.
Last year’s camp started with 60 minutes for t-ball-aged players, followed by an hour-and-forty-five-minute session with senior rookies, then ended with two hours devoted to mosquitoes and pee wees. Brand said the clinic was previously an annual event but hadn’t run in about four years prior to 2022 — they had talked about hosting clinics in 2020 and 2021, but COVID-19 put a kibosh on it.
Brand, who coaches his son in minor ball and is the association’s vice-president, said they’re also getting a hand from some young women who’ve graduated from the program to help with the softball players. Ultimately, clinics like this helps cement the future of the Red Lions and senior baseball in the community.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun for everyone who’s involved in the minor baseball system,” Brand added.