The Daley and Company Canada Day Classic may seem like nothing more than a weekend baseball tournament in the middle of a long season.
James Arko isn’t buying that.
Arko, a third-year centre-fielder for the Kamloops Player’s Bench midget RiverDogs, is getting ready for his third, and final, Canada Day Classic, which runs Friday through Monday on McArthur Island. The host RiverDogs will open against the Prince George Knights on Friday, 7 p.m., at NorBrock Stadium.
Arko’s preparation for the 10-team tournament involves not much more than hoping his left hand has healed before Friday. Arko broke some bones in the hand while diving for a catch in practice, and has been on the sidelines for nearly two weeks.
Normal recovery time for such an injury would have Arko resting for another two weeks, but he plans to be on the field alongside his teammates this weekend.
“I’m pushing for Friday because I love this tournament,” Arko said. “I would rather go out there with tape on my hand than sit on the bench.
“This is my last year, my third year, and this is our tournament. It means everything to me to play in this tournament.”
Arko’s return to the field is contingent on his getting a doctor’s note and McArthur Island not being underwater come Friday.
Forecasts indicate that the South Thompson River might peak in the next day or so, but part of NorBrock Stadium was under water Tuesday. Water was flooding into the concourse under the stands, forcing city employees to pump excess water into the parking lot.
But RiverDogs head coach Sean Wandler was optimistic NorBrock and Canada Games Field would stay dry through the weekend.
And the RiverDogs players are optimistic that this will be the year the hosts crack their 11-year championship drought. The only time Kamloops won the tournament was its first year, 2001.
“This is always an important one for us,” said infielder Blayne Halland. “We like to have the fans come out so we can show them how we play.”
The RiverDogs have been enjoying an excellent B.C. Midget AAA Baseball League season, going 19-8 so far. Kamloops has stumbled a little recently, which probably could have been expected with Arko’s injury and eight players involved in graduation celebrations.
But the Canada Day Classic marks the start of the homestretch for Kamloops — after the tournament, the RiverDogs will play their last six regular-season games over three weekends before provincials in Chilliwack from Aug. 1-5.
“This sort of gives us a kickstart and puts us in championship mode,” Arko said.
Only four of the 10 teams in the tournament are from B.C. — the Cowichan Valley Mustangs and Okanagan A’s are in Pool B, while Kamloops and Prince George are in Pool A.
Calgary Pro Baseball Force, a new team at the tournament, the Sherwood Park A’s, and the Edmonton Cardinals also are in Pool A, while the Calgary Longhorns, Spruce Grove Sox and Sherwood Park Dukes will play in Pool B.
It’s no accident that only one of these teams — the Mustangs — plays in the same league as the RiverDogs. Wandler chooses to make the draw as tough as he can, bringing in top-tier teams from Alberta and B.C., to give Kamloops the toughest opposition it can.
“We don’t want to play teams out of our league,” Wandler said. “That’s sort of the allure of the tournament and the excitement for the kids and myself is playing those teams we don’t normally face.”
It’s also one of the reasons Kamloops has struggled to win the tournament in the past.
In fact, before the RiverDogs made it to the championship game in 2011, they hadn’t been in the final since 2001. Kamloops lost 2-1 to Spruce Grove last year.
And as tough as that loss was to take, it may have helped the RiverDogs down the road, when they were rolling to the provincial AAA title at NorBrock Stadium in August.
“This tournament last year, a lot of guys have said, was the spearhead that gave them the confidence,” Wandler said.“Knowing that we made it into the final . . . that kind of gave them the confidence for the rest of July and did prepare them for provincials.”