BE IT HOMEGROWN talent or a new recruit it’s paying off to be a member of the Dawgs Academy.
Despite the pandemic grounding travel and putting showcase tournament opportunities on the sidelines, the Okotoks Dawgs Academy continues to churn out college scholarships for its athletes and is coming off its best year of post-secondary placement in program history.
“Its original intent and the whole purpose of the academy and our job and our objective all the time is improving kids on and off the field, academically and athletically, for the next level,” said Dawgs Academy general manager Tyler Hollick.
“We’ve got a really good crop of players and a lot of talent and when the pandemic hit, like we tell our players all the time, we didn’t want to let something get in our way or have something negative happen and it be an excuse so that we couldn’t get to accomplish our goals.
“So we went around as a staff and re-tooled what we were able to utilize in terms of we know that college coaches and professional scouts aren’t able to travel right now and see our guys play, we weren’t able to travel to them and a lot of people are in the same boat.”
Technology came in handy with the academy well-versed in putting together recruiting videos and utilizing analytics software such as Rapsodo.
And with MLB associate scouts working as coaches in the academy, there’s something to be said for knowing what discerning eyes are looking for.
“We upped our technology use, continued to make recruitment videos for our guys and really made it a focus to market them,” Hollick added. “Luckily for us we have phenomenal players that we’re extremely proud of and a lot of the schools end up taking a liking to them.”
Putting together film on a player is geared around highlighting the player’s best skills, from position players handling groundballs and flyballs, to an analytics focus for pitchers, and giving college coaches what they need to know.
“(Rapsodo) collects data like spin axis, spin efficiency, spin rate and all that kind of stuff that can tell if it’s something that will play at their level,” Hollick added. “It does separate it for us a little bit that we always use a little lot of technology. It kind of put the objectiveness into it and you say ‘these are his numbers and this is something that’s real and he’s good enough to play at your level.’”
Dawgs Academy infielder Jack Lines committed to the University of Tennessee prior to starting Grade 9, an opportunity that’s exceedingly rare and is often limited to unique and special individuals, Hollick said.
“It has to be a really, really unique and phenomenal fit, but Jack is a really special kid, way above a player,” Hollick said. “He’s going to be if not the best, one of the best players in the country when it’s all said and done. The kid is hyper-competitive, he’s always asking questions, he’s a phenomenal teammate.
“He’s in ninth grade, playing on our top academy team with Grades 11 and 12s and fitting in just fine and almost taking on that leadership role where he’s confident, but he’s not stepping on toes.”
Lines has been raised through the program, taking in lessons and camps with the academy since the age of seven and joining the Dawgs’ Peewee team at 10.
“My family is originally from here and we moved to the U.S. for parts of five years so we came back when I was seven,” said Lines. “From seven to nine I was doing lessons and my fourth grade year I was eligible to play Peewee, tried out and made it and went from there.”
The shortstop can play anywhere on the field, but has starred as a middle infielder.
So much so that he earned a NCAA Division I commitment while still in junior high after agreeing to join the University of Tennessee Volunteers as a class of 2024 graduate from the academy.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the SEC (Southeastern Conference), that’s the best conference, in my opinion,” Lines said. “We (the Dawgs) were in Nashville in 2019, our last real season, and I just fell in love with the state, everything about it.”
Another Dawgs connection, with academy coach Jeff Duda a former recruit of Tennessee coach Tony Vitello to Missouri back in the day, helped to forge the relationship. Lines’ considerable talents were on display last summer with Dawgs Academy games livestreamed.
“They had watched our live-stream games, that’s how a lot of our guys got recruited this year, so I started talking to them late-May and just fell in love with the program and Tony Vitello as a guy, I just love what he stands for,” Lines said. “How much interest he had in me and his players. Tennessee, they had been a struggling program, but he’s been there three years and they’re now in the top-10 of all college baseball right now.
“It checked all the boxes, that was one of my dream schools.”
While the precocious infielder has grown up with the program, his roommate and teammate Carson Hindmarsh, who billets with the Lines family, joined the academy and moved to Okotoks in 2020.
“When COVID hit I decided that as soon as I could get out here I was going to because I knew I was going to fall behind at home and just wanted to be a part of what they had going on out here,” said Hindmarsh, from Saskatchewan.
“In the fall of last year I moved out here and it’s the best decision I ever made.”
Hindmarsh had another big call to make in short order.
The 6-foot-4, 180-pound southpaw swiftly found himself in a position to pick from top programs, ultimately choosing to wear the Volunteers’ orange in October.
“The first outing I had here in the fall, coaches here talked to me and said they were going to video me and send it out to some schools just to get my name out there,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to get in contact with a few big name schools, but as soon as I talked to Tennessee, I couldn’t quite pinpoint it at the time, but it just felt like home and everything they believed in was important to me.”
Lines and Hindmarsh now have the unique opportunity to develop together in Okotoks before swapping Dawgs red for Volunteers orange with the latter heading stateside one year earlier as a 2023 grad.
“Baseball it means more than a lot to me, it’s everything I think of from the moment I wake up to when I go to bed,” Hindmarsh said. “It’s an escape from what’s going on in the world right now, it’s a sense of normal when we’re there, they make it as normal as possible.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have the support of the coaches and the guys here. When you’re moving away from your family, it’s tough, but it’s hard to miss it when you’re inside of the most amazing environment in the country.”
Hindmarsh originally caught the eye of the Dawgs Academy coaches at a Canada Day tournament in 2019 and since becoming a Dawg one year later he’s done everything to establish himself as a force in the program.
“He immediately came in and is a leader in our program and you can tell he has pride in the Dawgs and knows what it means to be here,” Hollick said. “He’s also really self-motivated and has a phenomenal baseball motor and he’s going to be very successful and play for a long time.
“I’m so incredibly proud of that kid and the strides he’s made already this year and with three more years in the program it’s going to be really exciting to see.”
The Northwestern states have also drawn considerable talent out of the academy over the years with the Pac-12 becoming an increasingly common landing spot for top Okotoks talent.
Okotoks has a well-established connection with Oregon State, one of the most successful college programs over the past two decades, with Dawgs players recruited to the Beavers program for five consecutive years.
“I think it’s just a testament to what the players and the alumni have paved the way for down in the States,” Hollick said.
“They go down there and succeed, and guys are all-Americans or junior college players of the year or they’re getting drafted and then they go ‘wow, that guy is a stud, where did he play? And where can we get more of them?’ “If you have a reputable program they can continue to get players out of it really helps.”
From the 2020 recruiting class, Okotoks’ most successful in program history, eight players landed at NCAA Division I schools with seven of those committing last summer and four of which were to Pac-12 schools.
“Almost all of them were for later classes,” Hollick said. “They’re handing out significant amount of scholarship money for underclassmen, banking on developing and continuing to improve in their high school years so they’re ready to get to that level.
“Since the Dawgs started in 1996 we’ve had a 100 per cent graduation rate, every single player that’s graduated through the academy has had the opportunity to play college baseball at the next level. It’s something we’re extremely proud of and on top of that, the last three graduating classes ‘18, ‘19 and ‘20, we had $1.8 million handed out to our players in scholarship money.
“And in 2021, ‘22, ‘23, we have $2.1 million handed out in scholarship money for those classes. We’re really proud of the guys and hopeful that we’re setting most or all of them up for their future.”
Going the Junior college route is also a common path and one that allows for the athletes to start out at a JUCO for a couple of years before transferring to a university program.
“You use the same amount of eligibility so you’re going down to a junior college, you get seen and get developed, you’re playing against 19 and 20 year olds versus 23-year-old men right off the bat,” Hollick said. “It’s a better chance to play and develop and get exposed so a four-year school, like a Division I, can come sign a guy out of junior college. We’ve had a lot of guys doing that in our past classes.
“It all depends on the kid and where they’re at in their development and what they want to do.”
Hollick acknowledged there have been some challenges in bringing out of province players into the fold during the pandemic, with different health restrictions in different regions, but the academy has been proactive in mitigating those hurdles for prospective players.
The academy was one of the first in the country to return to training last spring following the onset of the pandemic, due to an exhaustive safe return to play program.
“With the training we’re doing now and what we have been doing, they make it feel as normal as possible and we try to make do with what we can,” Hindmarsh added.
“It’s obviously an unfortunate time right now with everything going on in the world, but I’d say we as an academy are definitely not falling behind or doing anything to hurt ourselves here.
“Our pitcher only group, we’re a small group to begin with so we’ve been fortunate there hasn’t been much loss of any guys not being able to show up, not a whole lot has changed, it’s very much an individual game.”
Lines echoed the sentiment, adding he’s thankful for all the hard work and sacrifices the coaches and management put in to safely get the players back to training and not let the pandemic derail development.
“Everybody was kind of sitting around last year thinking what’s happening, but these guys had a plan and we were back in a month and a half, two months, obviously with restrictions,” Lines said. “We’re training in the weight-room at 5 a.m., we’re getting in our practices and we played what 30, 35, 40 games in the summer and 20 in the fall.
“Nothing has really changed other than having to wear masks and smaller groups.
“It’s crazy times, but we found a way and I honestly think that’s why the Dawgs are the Dawgs and why we’re so highly perceived.”
This article was featured in the spring 2021 edition of Foothills Magazine.