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Story and Photos by Christian J. Stewart (ISN)

Peoria, AZ (ISN) – The Langley Blaze have consistently been one of the top teams in the BC Premier Baseball League (BCPBL) and have graduated numerous players to both the professional and college baseball ranks. A good reason for that is their focus on high level development, part of which includes an annual trip to Arizona in March, to participate in Cactus League spring training against both college and minor pro teams.

Blaze infielder Austin Hardie fields ground balls at a workout in Peoria, Arizona during the Blaze’s recent spring training trip (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

The Blaze and their head coach Doug Mathieson have been running the Arizona trip for over 15 years now and this year’s trip started on March 16th and ended this past Friday, March 25th. It included 19 games against a range of competition, including some of the top junior college teams in the country, as well as games against the minor pro teams of the Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks.

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Langley’s Travis Horanski bids for a base hit during the Blaze’s game against Seminole State on March 16th (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

Mathieson, a former minor-pro player himself, and now a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks, has used his connections in the game to secure games against some pretty tough competition. “We came down and played high school teams originally and did not get what we thought we’d get out of it,” said Mathieson when ISN caught up with him in Arizona early in their trip. “So we started developing some of my relationships with players, other coaches and scouts to set up some college and minor pro games for the kids.”

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The Blaze played a number of games against minor league pro teams on their 2016 tour, including a game against the Mariners on March 22nd (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

“At the end of the day, I think it serves us very well,” said Mathieson. “We come back to the BCPBL and the kids have got that experience, there is no intimidation factor at all. Once you’ve faced a 95 mile per hour fastball here, the BCPBL is easy, you don’t see that there! In general, they are better for it. Anytime you play somebody better, you are going to get better yourself, as opposed to trying to just beat somebody. We’ll come down here and we will try and compete on a higher level and see how it goes.”

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Blaze pitcher Jake Polancic had a coouple of outings during the 2016 spring training tour, hitting 91 on the radar gun in one instance (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

That competitive nature was put to the test early in their trip, as the Blaze literally walked off the plane on the 16th, jumped into their rental vans and got to the ballpark in Surprise, Arizona just in time for their game against Seminole College (Oklahoma), one of the top junior college programs in the country. They hung around early, but ultimately fell 18-1 to the JC powerhouse.

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The Blaze began their tour in tough fashion, stepping off the plane on March 16th and then facing the Seminole State, one of the top junior college programs in the country (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

In another game against Texas on the 21st, the Blaze batters were put to the test when they faced the Ranger’s MLB pitchers Jake Diekman, who hits mid-to-to high 90’s with his fastball, and Sam Dyson. Both pitchers had missed their work the day before with the big league club and the Rangers asked if it would be okay for them to throw against the Blaze. “I did not hesitate to say yes to that,” said Mathieson.

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In addition to facing the likes of Texas Ranger MLB pitchers Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson, the Blaze came up against Mariners minor-league pitcher Joselito Cano, brother of Robinson Cano, during their game on March 22nd (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

While the high-level competition is great for his own club, it is also great for the various prospects that Mathieson commonly adds to his roster for the Arizona trip. “I scout for the Diamondbacks, so we have various scouts who will send me players that need an extra look and need some extra exposure to the college and pro scouts that are here.”

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6’6″ Cuban prospect Ernesto Martinez was one of many prospects that joined the Blaze for their 2016 tour in the hopes of catching the eye of the scouts (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

This year’s Blaze roster featured a number of such players, including Justin Black, a 4th round pick of the Atlanta Braves who has been released and is now looking for a new team, Ernesto Martinez, a 16-year old, 6’6″ pitching prospect from Cuba, Vincent Ramos, an outfield prospect from Puerto Rico and middle infielder Jonny Homza from Alaska who has committed to the University of Hawaii and who Mathieson termed, “probably the best hitter here this year.”

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Blaze infielder Jonny Homza, here taking infield practice during a workout in Peoria, is another prospect that enjoyed the benefits of the 2016 tour (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

The Blaze also picked up a number of players from Ontario’s high performance baseball programs, including pitchers David-John DePiero from Thunder Bay and Jordan Balazovic, a member of the Canadian Junior National team, who hit 92 on the radar gun in one of the games in Arizona.

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Ontario prospect David-John DePiero of Thunder Bay, was one of eight Ontario prospects that joined the Blaze for the 2016 spring training trip. Here he pitches against Seminole State (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

“We’ve commonly added guys like that to our roster,” noted Mathieson, “and many have benefitted from the additional exposure here and found a team. That exposure too, benefits our own players. For example, the year Brett Lawrie was drafted, so were four others from our team and a large part of that was the additional exposure they received here.”

Mathieson estimates that about 130 kids have been drafted to the pro ranks as a result of being on the Arizona tour and that one nice thing about the games they play is that often they are playing against alumni who are now in the pros, “which I think is very rewarding.”

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A key aspect of the Blaze’s spring training trip is exposure to both college and MLB scouts. Here Puerto Rican prospect Vincent Ramos talks with an MLB scout during a workout in Peoria (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

He also emphasizes that it is not just about the pros. “Getting drafted by the pros is nice and is a bonus and will happen no matter what,” added Mathieson, “but a big part of this trip is also getting kids exposure for college, which when you are back home in Canada, can be a bit tough. Here for example, at our high school game today, we had four scouts there and when we play the Mariners Tuesday, we will have about 20 scouts there. All it takes is for one kid to step up and have a big day in that situation and they then get noticed and get a potential offer.”

Hopefully that will be the case for such players as Rhys Cratty and Joe Tevlin, who Mathieson notes were two of the top hitters during the tour. Kids also having big moments included Clayton Keys with a home-run against the Diamondbacks, Quinton Nakamura with a double against the Reds and Cole Cantleton with a triple against the Cubs.

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Jonny Homza, here hitting a triple against Seattle, was one of many Blaze players who hope that a strong performance in Arizona was noticed by the scouts (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / ISN)

Now back in British Columbia, the Blaze, whose 28-16 record in 2015 saw them finish fourth and out of the top spot in the BCPBL for the first time in four years, will be looking to use their Arizona experience to improve upon their record and reclaim that top spot in 2016, something that should be well within their grasp.

Their season begins in earnest on April 15th when the Blaze travel to Abbotsford to face the Cardinals. Local fans in Victoria can see the Blaze in action on Saturday May 7th when they travel to Lambrick Park in Victoria to face the Eagles and again on Sunday May 29th when they head to Henderson Park to face the Mariners.