The Kelowna Falcons fell a little short of expectations this summer by missing the West Coast League playoffs. But in the general manager’s mind, it wasn’t for a lack of talent. Mark Nonis rates the 2012 version of the Falcons as one of the deepest, most skilled teams he’s had the pleasure of watching since Kelowna joined the WCL nine seasons ago.
After winning 18 of their first 28 games, Falcons looked to be legitimate contenders for the city’s first ever WCL title. However, a less-than-stellar final month of the season deprived head coach Al Cantwell and his club of a post-season berth as Kelowna went 10-16 down the stretch.
“I thought it was a solid ball club, and at times a great ball club,” said Nonis, whose team placed third in the East Division with a 28-26 record. “For 80 per cent of the year we had the best hitting team and the second best pitching. We put ourselves in a position and had the opportunity to take a run at it. But when the guys had to win games, they just didn’t step up. They didn’t come through in the crunch. That’s the way it goes sometimes…talent doesn’t always win.”
Still, Nonis said local ball fans have never before been exposed to the level of baseball skill which has frequented the diamond at Elks Stadium during the past couple of summers.
More than 90 per cent of the Falcons’ roster comes from NCAA Div. 1 schools, a number that has steadily increased each season since 2004.
This spring, an all-time high eight former Falcons were selected in the Major League Baseball draft, including Tyler Wagner, David Otterman and Keaton Briscoe.
“It’s amazing to see the level of talent that’s come through this town, it’s grown so vast over the last few years,” said Nonis. “The West Coast League is now one of the most desired places to play for top university players. The league had 55 players taken in the MLB draft this year. The reputation as a top summer league keeps growing.”
As for the response of local fans to the product offered by the Falcons, Nonis is encouraged by the growth over the last several seasons.
Average crowds at Elks Stadium have risen from 250 in 2004 to right around the 800 mark in 2012.
“The town is slowly but surely catching on to the talent that’s right in their own backyard,” Nonis said. “It’s grown about 20 per cent each year and we’d like to see that continue.”
Despite the growth, running the Falcons continues to be a money-losing proposition for the Nonis family which has never finished a season in the black. Crowds of 900 to 1,000 fans per game would get the club much closer to a break-even scenario.
Still, Nonis assures money has nothing to do with his family’s motivation for running the club.
“This is definitely not-for-profit, and whether we lose money or not we’re going to continue bringing this quality of baseball to Kelowna. Ninety-five per cent of the people working at the games are volunteers. We’re doing it for the game of baseball itself and the community.
“We’ve lost money every year, but we’re inching closer,” Nonis added “We’ve had very good support from sponsors and a lot of people in the community. We’re going to continue our commitment no matter what.”
With the 2012 campaign barely over, Nonis is already busy making plans for 2013. One order of business will be trying to get Canadian-born head coach Al Cantwell back for this third season at the helm. Cantwell returned to Shreveport, Louisiana this week where he coaches at Bird High School.
“Al did a great job with our players and we’d like to have him back,” said Nonis. “But we understand he has some life choices and other options he might want to pursue, so we’ll see what happens.”
On the field, the Falcons will lose some key players who are becoming seniors and will be ineligible to return in 2013, including Kyle Pearson, Greg Friesen, Brandon Marris and Andrew Firth.
Key players who are eligible to return include Jace Conrad, Cord Cockrell, Cale Coshow and Jerry McClanahan.
“We’ll lose some big stars, but if some guys decide to come back, we”ll have a pretty good core to work with,” Nonis said.
A number of individual team records fell during the 2012 season, thanks to a trio of players.
Kyle Pearson (LSU Shreveport) established new marks for at bats (181), hits (59), RBIs (33), home runs (seven) and runs scored (37).
Pitchers Cord Cockrell (U of Louisiana Lafayette) and Brandon Marris (Southeastern Oklahoma) set a new standard for wins with seven apiece.