Rural Alberta community hits home run with academy

Program attracts students | The academy has slowed the school’s decline and makes ‘young men out of boys’ — that know how to play ball

OYEN, Alta. — Some rural areas may have difficulty attracting young blood, but not Oyen.

The town in east-central Alberta has young baseball players clamouring to attend high school there.

Thirty-eight boys applied to play ball at the Badlands Baseball Academy this year, and only 17 were accepted.

“It’s an economic driver for our town and it keeps the numbers up in our school and it provides more options for our students,” said academy founder Doug Jones.

The 17 ball-playing students have bumped enrolment at South Central High School to 113.

Students pay $14,000 a year to attend the academy, and their enrolment at the local high school brings in almost $10,000 each in provincial education grants.

As well, parents and visitors spend money when they visit town during games and billets buy extra groceries at the local store.

“It’s like a half million dollar business in town,” said Jones.

The academy started in 2009 with the help of a $500,000 grant through the Rural Community Adaptation Grant program. Other grants have helped upgrade the ball diamond and recreation centre.

Starting the academy made economic sense for Jones because it helped ensure the schools stay strong, but it was also a way to encourage baseball on the Prairies.

Similar high school baseball academies operate in Alberta in Vauxhall, Okotoks and Edmonton.

Christine Caskey and her husband, Trent, billet ballplayer Dylan Flasch of Lloydminster during the school year.

“We live in rural Alberta, and isn’t that what it’s about, giving an opportunity for a young ballplayer to play ball. The academy is essential,” she said at a recent Saturday morning ball game with her family.

“We are in the middle of nowhere and we’re bringing in 17 new ballplayers into our school every year. We need these kids in the school system.… How do you not give back to something like this. There is not a lot out here. We might not have a movie theatre here, but we can watch great baseball and cheer for kids we know. Here we know the boys and we get to hang off the fence.”

Principal Alan Stoben said the ballplayers have helped slow the steady reduction of students at the high school. One-third of the graduating class were members of the baseball academy last year.

“Nothing but good has come out of it,” he said. “The kids come from all over and seem to really like it here.”

Stoben said locals have welcomed the new students to their small school and would welcome even more players if the academy were able to expand. Four of the ballplayers are on Stoben’s volleyball team.

He said community members may not come to the school for a volleyball game, but a lot of older people enjoy watching a baseball game.

“Baseball has been a popular and successful sport in Oyen for a long time.”

The town used to be home to the Pronghorns, part of the Saskatchewan Major Baseball League before it folded. The Badlands Badgers sometimes wear the old Pronghorn uniforms as a nod to its baseball roots.

Badger’s head coach Jeff Amos said the academy’s goal is to develop great ballplayers, but it also helps build “greater citizens.”

“You want them to grow up to be responsible young men and valuable community members,” said Amos.

“It’s what they learn through baseball that is going to stick with them for the next 50 years.”

The ball players help decorate the local seniors centre at Christmas and play shuffleboard and cards with seniors at the lodge. They collect food for the food bank at Halloween.

“It helps the town, but it’s good for our guys here. They learn responsibility and give back,” said Amos.

“These kids come in at 15 or 16 and the town helps raise them. They’re here for three years and it becomes their home.”

Before the weekend double header, the boys grabbed rakes to pull leaves out of the dugout and away from the fence.

“It’s their field and they have to take pride in it and look after it.”

One of the draws for students is the indoor practice facility at a mothballed Puratone Pork facility just east of town. The large facility operated for only nine months before closing, leaving bad feelings and an empty barn.

“It’s a bit of a sore spot,” Jones said about some of the local investors who lost money.

The academy leases one of the eight 150 by 92 foot rooms in the 160,000 sq. foot. barn for its winter practice area.

“It’s the only academy with an indoor practice facility,” Jones said.

“It has the same turf as Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.”

Last year, three academy graduates went on to play ball at the University of Nanaimo, one in North Dakota and another in Calgary.

Kaden Doerksen of Mundare, Alta., said it wasn’t a stretch for him to move to Oyen as part of his goal to attend college or university through baseball.

“I love baseball and I want to play all year round,” said Doerksen, a utility player on the Badgers.

Niklas Fischer of Red Deer said it was an adjustment to move to Oyen with a population of about 1,000, but it’s forced him to become more independent.

“You have more responsibility put on you to stay on top of the school and do ball and do your laundry,” said Fischer, a catcher.

“There are more eyes around. It’s a small community, but they are very supportive of the academy.”

Logan Woitowich of Medicine Hat, Alta., said the move to Oyen has been life changing and has given him an opportunity to refocus his life.

“It gets you to a better situation in life,” said Woitowich, also a catcher.

“It was hard at first, but after I figured out I had a second family, I realized I got it good. I have home cooked meals every night and people who like to talk. It gives you a good reality check of things. This is a growing up period for me.”

Woitowich’s grandmother, Laura, said the baseball academy was the best thing to happen to him.

“I like their philosophy of making young men out of the boys,” said Laura.

Amos said the players work hard practicing after school four or five days a week and travelling across the province and the Prairies for weekend games.

“A lot of people couldn’t handle the physical work these kids put in,” said Amos.

Jones said it’s a lot of work keeping the team’s finances secure, but his next dream is to start a girls’ softball academy in Oyen. The infrastructure is already in place and it would be one more draw for the small town.

As well, he said a large riding facility near the school would be ideal for operating a rodeo school.

It’s just one more way of keeping rural Alberta viable, he added.

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