By Ottawa Sportspage, for Louis-Riel Rebelles
Growing up in Charlotte, NC, Jason Coker could play baseball outdoors 11.5 months out of 12 each year. The reality is a bit different in his new home, but the former pro player is finding plenty of people who are passionate about America’s game in Canada’s capital nonetheless, and he’s eager to further spread his love for the sport as the newly-minted director of the sports-study baseball program at Louis-Riel high school – set to launch in fall 2019.
“Yeah, it’s a lot different in the southeastern U.S. than it is here,” smiles Coker, who first came to Ottawa to play for the Intercounty Baseball League’s Fat Cats. “The weather may not allow the same culture to appear, but the kids are still inside finding a way to do it.”
Following All-America accolades and a 2011 conference title playing NCAA ball for the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Coker met his now-wife during his first stint in Ottawa. Pro baseball then took the infielder renowned for his strong defence to Barrie (Ont.), Canberra (Australia), and then back to Ottawa for a memorable conclusion to his playing career thanks to a 2016 Can-Am League title with the Ottawa Champions.
“I really enjoyed my time playing baseball in this city, and now it’s presenting a fun challenge to help develop baseball in the area,” signals Coker, who first began coaching young players in 2012 with his hometown On Deck Baseball Academy.
Warm weather and top-notch training under professional coaches and past pros was the norm in Charlotte, but Ottawa does have one thing he never experienced – a sports-study program. The concept of integrating high-level sports with quality academics was totally new to Coker.
He says spending part of the school day focused on baseball training could have really helped him as a teenager trying to pack homework, dinner, chores and sports into his evening – not to mention time for family and friends, or rest, recovery and injury prevention, which were often pushed aside.
“The sports-study program opens the door for a whole new outlook on sports,” notes Coker, who regrets giving up basketball – which could have helped him develop better conditioning, joint stability, lateral movement and reaction time for baseball – early in high school.
“I see our program growing exponentially as the years go,” he adds. “Like Louis-Riel’s done in many other sports: start small and do it right, and this will be a top avenue for baseball players in the city of Ottawa.”
At the high school level, the program features one period each day devoted to training (for which students receive a phys ed credit). One day will be baseball-specific with bats, gloves and balls, and the next will be strength & conditioning to improve players’ joint stability, flexibility and core strength, plus nutrition and mental skills. In Grade 7-8, students can take part in baseball training 2 mornings per week in the exploratory sports program.
They’ll utilize nearby diamonds in fall and spring, while winter will be inside at Canada’s largest sports dome on-site at Louis-Riel. They’ll meticulously break down players’ mechanics so that “by the time the snow melts, these kids are stepping on the field and they look like a whole new set of athletes,” indicates Coker, who leads the year-round Capital City Baseball Academy and will coach the Capital City Reds 17-and-under team this summer.
The first of its kind in Ottawa, the sports-study baseball program offers a great chance for student-athletes to develop under professional coaches, underlines Louis-Riel sports-study coordinator Ken Levesque.
“It’s quality education, quality teaching and quality coaching – all intertwined together,” Levesque highlights. “It’s an opportunity they can’t miss out on.”
Though the sports-study baseball stream is new, the sport does have a strong tradition at Louis-Riel. The school’s always entered a team in the local springtime league (a short season of less than 10 games), and there are individuals who have gone on to U.S. scholarships such as Alex Gagné, who played at the University of Maine and in Texas (and is now also helping to launch the new program at LR).
“Baseball has always been a really popular sport at Louis-Riel, even 15 or 20 years ago before we started the sports-study program,” notes Levesque, proud of the school’s innovative and pioneering spirit. “It was definitely the next sport for us. And I think Ottawa needs it right now.”
Levesque and Coker see the program as a tool to combat the exodus of the city’s high-calibre teenage talent, and to complement and enhance community club teams.
“We’re not competing against them,” Levesque emphasizes. “We want to work together to make baseball players better in Ottawa and bring them to the next level.”