The names of the players and surrounding landscape of Thunder Bay Little League baseball may change, but the Port Arthur Nationals have been a picture of consistency through it all.
And they’re back for more.
Port Arthur’s rep club of 11- and 12-year-olds open action at the Ontario Major Little League this weekend in Kingston after winning the district crown for a fourth-straight season earlier this month. The Nationals’ first pool game is Saturday against Brockville.
“We have a lot of good coaches in the Port Arthur Nationals to develop the younger kids, the minors,” said Nats manager Tony LaChimea. “Even though they’re 11- and 12-years old, they’ve been playing for three or four years already.”
Since 2015, Little League in Thunder Bay has been relegated to just two age divisions instead of four. The minor (age 9-10) and major (11-12) still hold house leagues and district playdowns while the junior (13-14) and senior (15-16) divisions have been eliminated and absorbed into the Thunder Bay Lakers AAA program.
Unlike years past, there are now only two Little League associations here (Port Arthur Nationals and Westfort Internationals) due to shrinking numbers in youth baseball.
“They used to have Current River, East End and Fort William Nationals. It was huge before,” recalled LaChimea, a former Nationals player who has coached for the better part of 25 years. “They got rid of them because of soccer and (summer) hockey.”
LaChimea cites former NHLer Patrick Sharp and current pros Robert Bortuzzo and Carter Hutton as examples of hockey players who also played Little League baseball. Sharp is a graduate of the Nationals program while Bortuzzo and Hutton played with Westfort.
The Port Arthur majors have gone to two of the last three Canadian championships. Last season, they fell to Toronto’s High Park in the provincial semifinals.
Only two players remain from the 2017 squad that last went to the nationals — Jack Weiss and Easton Mikus. The pair are co-captains and among Port Arthur’s top players that LaChimea and assistant coach Clint Weiss will lean on. It’s the first year LaChimea will be without veteran coach Jason Hart, who is with the Lakers club full-time.
“First time going without Jason. I’m losing my man here because he was the best,” LaChimea said. “He had a big, big part in both those teams going to the Canadian (championships).”
The rest of the Nationals roster includes Jack Barber, Jacob Pacholczak, Kade Hockenhull, Lucas Dyll, Brooks Aylward, Charlie Weiss, Chase Furlong, Dominic Pugliese and Gavin Everett.
High Park, Brockville and Windsor South will join Port Arthur in one pool at the Ontario tournament, while Ottawa West, South Ottawa Blues, Perth and Kingston will be in the other pool. The top two records from each pool advance to next week’s medal round with a spot at the Canadian Little League championship in Ancaster, Ont., Aug. 1-10.
“We have a reputation as one of the big guns the last three or four years,” LaChimea said. “High Park is always the strongest because they can pick (talent) from all of Toronto. They always have an advantage. Ottawa South is very good team. Our years that we won, we had to go through High Park and Ottawa South.”
Another deep run will go a long way for player development — which at this age level is key in keeping the kids’ interest in the sport, said LaChimea.
“They’re at a good age where they like to learn,” he said. “They listen. They’re not all over the place where they’re older and want to leave (baseball) or they have jobs and that. They still want to learn so they absorb a lot of stuff.”