By Tyler Lowey:
If it wasn’t for the reputation built up by the Okotoks Dawgs Academy program, it’s difficult to say where Cole MacLaren would be today.
He doesn’t even have the answer to that.
“I have no idea where I would be without the Dawgs,” MacLaren said, looking back on his interesting journey that took him to the brink of the Atlantic Coast Conference with the University of Pittsburgh Panthers last week at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in North Carolina.
MacLaren’s story begins in the small town of Morell, P.E.I. The town with a population a little over 300, is known for their blueberries and fishing, and usually doesn’t produce nationally recognized catching prospects.
Morell is also 4,766 kilometres from Okotoks, but after a couple exchanged emails, it quickly became his new home during his Grade 11 year at Holy Trinity Academy.
MacLaren made the connection with the Dawgs Academy when former coach A.J. Fystro made a recruiting visit the winter of MacLaren’s Grade 10 year to the Eastern Baseball Academy in Stratford, P.E.I.
“Cole was a guy that stood out when I was there. You could tell he was polished behind the plate, blocked well and had a good body size,” said Fystro. “He was also very respectful and had a great family. Those were the two most important things that helped get him here.”
The transition wasn’t going to be an easy one, but the MacLaren’s knew about Fystro’s visit and already began to prepare themselves for the move if Fystro liked their son enough to take him across Canada.
“I got an email from A.J. one day to see if I had any interest in the program. One thing led to another and I ended up in Okotoks,” said MacLaren. “Switching schools was the toughest part for me. I didn’t know anyone, so I had to create new relationships, but my teammates and billet family welcomed me with open arms and helped make the transition an easy one.”
When the Maritimer arrived in Okotoks, the book on MacLaren was a short one: He was reliable and solid behind the plate, but pitchers have been known to hit the bat out of his hands.
“I knew I was going to be behind the rest of the guys offensively because they have used the facilities for years. It was kind of tough, too, joining a new program where everyone is more developed, bigger and stronger. It was a little intimidating at first,” said MacLaren. “I knew that hitting was an area of my game that needed improvement, so I put my head down and tried to work hard each day to get better.”
Even with some of the greatest resources at his fingertips in the Duvernay Fieldhouse, MacLaren’s bat wasn’t coming along the way he hoped. By his senior year playing on the elite Okotoks Dawgs Black midget program, he was a bottom of the order hitter.
The reason he was in the lineup each game was because of his steadiness and his ability to control the game from behind the plate.
“Cole has a great arm and is solid behind the dish. One of the best qualities about Cole is that he can go out and catch four games in a weekend and not get tired — that’s incredible,” said Dawgs Academy Coach Val Helldobler.
It was MacLaren’s prowess behind the plate that jumped off the page during the Dawgs’ annual Spring Showcase for college scouts of every level across North America.
That’s when the Colby Community College Trojans — a program that has developed a steady pipeline with prairie kids — came calling.
“We saw Cole and he thought he fit our mold perfectly,” said Trojans Head Coach Ryan Carter. “A lot of the time, schools will look for big-bodied catchers. But over the years at Colby, we have done a great job developing the smaller catchers, Those guys appeal to me more.”
At 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, Carter thought that MacLaren had the perfect body that could withstand the rigors of catching a collegiate schedule.
“The crazy thing is that once he got into a college program, Cole’s bat came alive,” said Helldobler.
After only hitting .222 with no home runs and five RBI in 22 recorded games during his senior year with the Dawgs, MacLaren notched a .291 average and an .787 OPS in 46 games with one home run and 33 RBI during his freshman campaign with the Trojans.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the coaches in Okotoks and at Colby for preaching their techniques on me. Their knowledge of the hitting mechanics is incredible and they really helped me get comfortable and find something that works for me,” said MacLaren.
As an encore at Colby, MacLaren hit .248, cashed in 21 RBI, cranked a pair of long balls and even legged out one triple.
“In Cole’s freshman year, the starter got hurt, which allowed him to basically play in every game and that was huge for his development. Then to get ready for his second year, he did a phenomenal job changing his body and getting into much better shape. That allowed him to catch 55 games for us, which is a rarity these days,” said Carter.
Catching everyday for two years taught MacLaren how to handle the ins and outs of a rotation — the type of knowledge you can’t pick up by watching film or tracking pitches while sitting on a bucket in the dugout.
MacLaren enjoyed his time at Colby, but he still had dreams of starring for a big National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 program one day.
His dreams became a reality following the sophomore showcase for players in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference in Wichita, Kan.
“I was on the bus ride home from the showcase when the assistant coach from Pittsburgh, Billy Alvino gave me a call and invited me to come visit the campus,” said MacLaren. “As soon as I took my visit, I committed. I would have been crazy not to.”
The Panthers are glad he did, because after arriving on one of the older campuses in North America, MacLaren found himself behind the dish a lot.
“I never would ha
ve thought that (Cole) would be starting for a big time college program,” said Dawgs Academy Coach Frank Ingram. “He clearly figured something out and has put the work in everyday to get to where he is now. He is the perfect example of not putting a limit on somebody.”
MacLaren played in all 55 games for the Panthers this season, but only hit .200 with 21 RBIs.
“I used to get caught up in batting averages and wanting to hit .300 all the time, but I don’t care about it anymore. I obviously need improvement, but my mindset now is to focus on the task at hand and take care of what’s going on the field at the moment and worry about my average later,” said MacLaren.
The rest of the country didn’t pay that much attention to his average, as he was nominated for the Johnny Bench Award this season. The award is given out annually by a committee to whom they think the best catcher in the country was that year. Previous winners include current MLB players such as Kurt Suzuki, Buster Posey and Mike Zunino.
A nomination for that award could improve his MLB Draft stock that has only continued to rise since leaving P.E.I. as a teenager. With the draft starting tonight, MacLaren isn’t expecting anything, but regardless of how the draft shakes out, he still dreams of playing pro one day.
“I still think I need a solid summer here in Okotoks and one more strong year back at Pitt before I can start thinking about pro ball, but it’s always been a goal of mine to play pro after college. If the time comes sooner rather than later, all the hard work, time and moving across the country will have been worth it,” said MacLaren.