After years of chasing after the top squads in the North Saskatchewan River Baseball League, the Unity Cardinals enter the 2018 campaign with the target firmly on their back.
Having captured their first league championship in their 18-year history last August, the Cardinals now have to deal with fending off the other 11 teams in the NSRBL that want to knock them off their pedestal.
“We’ve never been in this situation before, so this is going to be an entirely different season for us,” Cardinals third baseman and coach Graeme Gieni said.
“I really think this is going to be a season where you are going to have any given team win on any given night. If you get strong pitching, have a solid defence and get some timely hits, you can beat anyone in this league. We have to make sure that we are on our game every night, as everyone will be bringing their best against us.”
It was a dream campaign for the Cardinals last summer, as they knocked off the top ranked Border City Blue Jays of Lloydminster in the league final and reached the provincial Tier III senior baseball championship game on their home diamond, where they fell to the Northeast Red Sox of Melfort.
Four players from last year’s lineup are no longer with the team, with the biggest loss being star pitcher Rhett Feser, who is playing abroad in Europe this season.
“We picked up a couple of new recruits for this year, two of whom are siblings in Dax and Payton Desmarais, and we have one player who suited up for us about five or six years ago who is back playing for us,” Gieni said.
“We were down guys a couple of weeks before the season so it wasn’t looking great for fielding a full roster, but we’re back to having a solid lineup of players once again.”
The Cardinals kicked off their title defence on a winning note last Thursday night at Beaver Lions Stadium, as they picked up a 2-1 win over the Battlefords Trappers.
“If you looked at the first couple of innings and saw how both teams were booting the ball around on defence, I would have expected the final score to be something like 10-9,” Gieni said.
“After that, the pitchers really started to take things over for both teams, and that was nice to see for the season opener. Both of our guys [Blake Robertson and Cory Wildeman] pitched really well, and I think that played a huge part in getting the win.”
Things didn’t go quite as well for the Cardinals in their home opener Tuesday, as they dropped an 8-1 decision to the North Battleford Beavers.
As the team gears up to visit the Wilkie Brewers Thursday, Gieni expects the strengths of this year’s Cardinals squad to be similar to their 2017 title-winning lineup.
“Last year, we leaned heavily on our pitching, so I’m hoping that we can rely on Cory and Blake during the season,” Gieni said.
“You never really know when it comes to batting as to what players will be leading the way for you, but it all depends on who gets hot with the sticks.”
Following Tuesday’s slate of games, the Lloydminster Twins lead the NSRBL standings with a 2-0 record, while the Meadow Lake Sox, Beavers and Brewers are 1-0.
The Cardinals have a 1-1 record to sit all alone in fifth spot.
At the bottom of the standings, the Blue Jays, Mervin Flyers and Standard Hill Lakers are 0-1, with the Trappers residing in the basement at 0-2.
The Macklin Lakers, Edam Blue Sox and St. Walburg Reds have yet to start their regular season slates.