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College baseball: Catawba’s Strickland pitching in Canada

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

WEYBURN, Saskatchewan — Pitching for Canada’s Weyburn Beavers, 1,800 miles from Newman Park, Catawba College’s Sawyer Strickland has had one great start and one not-so-great one.

He’s learned plenty from both. Adversity teaches even more than success.

“It’s a long way from home, but Coach (Jim) Gantt and Coach (Russ) Weiker find us places to play in the summer, and they know what’s best for us as far as becoming the best we can be,” Strickland said in a phone interview. “It does help that I’m up here with two of my Catawba teammates (pitchers Caleb Link and Pearce Wilhelm). That’s a lot different than going to Canada and not knowing anyone on the team,”

Not that long ago, Strickland was just a tall, skinny guy who had been homeschooled. His most memorable sports moments had come with the Rowan County American Legion team. He was 7-2 in the sizzling summer of 2016, and that seventh win had come on a humongous stage with all kinds of pressure. He’d surprised a lot of people by pitching into the eighth inning of Rowan’s 13-4 victory against the powerful California state champions in the Legion World Series in Shelby.

The 6-foot-3 right-hander headed to Catawba right after Rowan’s runner-up finish in the World Series, but then he just about disappeared. He wasn’t a factor at all for the Indians in 2017 (five appearances, 12.46 ERA) or 2018 (15 appearances, 0-2, 8.31 ERA), but 2019 was a much different story. As a junior, he emerged as one of Catawba’s top starters, with an 8-2 record, 3.72 ERA and 70 strikeouts. In the postseason, he was one of the heroes of Catawba’s triumphs in the South Atlantic Conference and the Southeast Regional.

“A big factor in my improvement from 2018 to 2019 was playing summer ball in 2018,” Strickland said. “I played in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. I was away from home for the first time.  I grew up a lot, matured a lot. It was beneficial in a lot of ways.”

Pitching for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Braves in the Ripken League, Strickland progressed from occasional reliever to dependable starter. He logged quality innings and his confidence-level changed.

“It was also important that I knew Catawba was really counting on me this year for the first time,” Strickland said. “My teammates trusted me to pitch well, and I just went out and did it.”

This summer, Strickland hopes to make more strides by traveling even farther from his comfort zone.

“It is a big step to go to another country,” Strickland said. “Just getting there was an experience for Pearce, Caleb and me. Our plane landed in Winnipeg, and we got sent to the immigration people and we missed our next flight. We were in three different airports, counting Regina. From Regina, we drove about an hour to get to Weyburn.”

Weyburn isn’t just north of the border, it’s west. Way out west. There’s a reason they call the organization the Beavers play in the Western Canadian Baseball League. Weyburn is 70 miles north of North Dakota, making it the southern-most city in the WCBL.

“We stay with host families,” Strickland said. “Caleb and Pearce stay with another host family. My host family has me and one of my teammates, They treat me like a member of the family.”

Canada is vast. There will be some long bus rides to road games. Strickland said the longest trip for the Beavers will be about nine hours.

Both of Strickland’s starts have come at home at Tom Laing Park.

In his debut against the Medicine Hat Mavericks, Strickland struck out six in seven innings and allowing one run to earn a victory.

He had a strong relief outing — striking out the side — in his second appearance.

Next was a rough start against the Edmonton Prospects last Thursday. In the fourth inning, Strickland hit the leadoff batter. Then he gave up a homer on an 0-and-2 pitch. After a walk and a double, Strickland was out of the game. Weyburn was still ahead 6-4 when he exited, but the Beavers wound up losing 8-6. He didn’t get the decision, so he’s still 1-0.

Weyburn (18-5) has a stout team. One of Strickland’s teammates, Christian Vick, from Southeast Missouri State, pitched a no-hitter on Saturday.

“It’s really good competition in this league, but it’s a wide mix,” Strickland said. “There are D-I guys, D-II guys, D-III guys and junior college guys.”

The bulk of the players are Americans. Strickland said his team includes three Canadians and two Australians. The rest are from the States. Head coach Phil Curtis is Canadian, but his two assistants are from the U.S.

Strickland has heard a lot about the local fishing, but he hasn’t had a chance to try his luck yet. He and his teammates spend most of their free time at the gym, hanging out and working out.

The summer will be long. It looks like Weyburn could be in for a nice playoff run. If that happens, Strickland, Link and Wilhelm won’t return to Rowan County until well into August.

Link (1-0) has pitched in three games for the Beavers, while Wilhelm (0-0) has pitched in five. They’ve performed well in relief roles.

“It’s a long season and a long way from home, but it’s going to benefit all of us next year,” Strickland said.

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