When the Clive Coyotes took to the diamond in Fort Saskatchewan for the Midget AA Tier 1 provincial gold medal game against the South Jasper Place team, there was more than a first-place finish on the line – the entire season, which had been played to its utmost, had been played in the memory of one of their own, killed in a car accident over the winter.
After playing one of their best seasons, one which was dedicated to Damian Pannenbecker, a loss would have felt like letting their fallen teammate down.
Fortunately for the Coyotes, it wasn’t something they had to worry about, as they defeated the Jasper team 6-2.
Though the score shows well in the Coyotes’ favour, there were times when it looked like Jasper would close the gap.
“It was pretty nail biting at the end,” coach Neil McCallum said. “The boys are celebrating now, though.”
After playing host to last year’s provincials – and not coming out with the gold despite being the first-place team in the league – this year’s finish was bittersweet due to the loss of Pannenbecker, McCallum said.
“He was going to come back and coach this year,” he said of the player, who had aged out of the league at the end of last year. “His memory kept us motivated.”
The Coyotes went into the provincials as the second place team in the league, and crossed bats with Sherwood Park, Okotoks and Bonnyville in the round-robin, coming out without loss to take the top spot in their pool. From there, they went on to a pitched battle with Slave Lake, narrowly drawing ahead to win with a final score of 6-4.
The final game against South Jasper Place was almost anti-climactic, for while the Jasper team had saved their best pitcher for the final game, the Coyotes “wore him down and drove him out” early on, resulting in a “soft, left-handed pitcher” taking his place, according to McCallum.
That gave the Coyotes the opportunity they needed to pull ahead – though the strong defensive play of the Jasper team kept them from pulling ahead enough for a comfortable margin.
“We could fill the bases but couldn’t get them home,” McCallum said.
The Coyotes all honoured Damian by wearing stickers on their helmets – Damian’s initials DJP and his jersey number, 19. Over the years, Damian had played frequently with the boys in Jasper, and as the Coyotes took the field, they noticed many of their competition were also wearing the stickers, according to the team’s manager and Damian’s father, Denny Pannenbecker.
“Damian was chosen as the MVP for Clive for their final game,” Pannenbecker wrote on his Facebook page. “When the game was over, I sat in the dugout crying, the emotions were so great. I strongly feel that Damian was with us all weekend and helped keep the boys focused and ready to go. We even had past players and parents come out today to watch and cheer us on. it was a great day.”
With its provincial gold finish, the Coyotes now head to the Western Canada championships, held in Swift Current, later this month.