It took some serious deliberation, but Paul Mrazek has his men.
The head coach of the Cranbrook Bandits firmed up his roster Tuesday, setting the stage for the American Legion Baseball season, which is slated to begin Saturday, May 14 at the Wood Bat Classic in Libby, Mont.
“I feel good, it was great that we had a lot of interest,” Mrazek said Tuesday afternoon.
“We had a lot of young kids that are looking really good, they’re just a little bit young right now. They’re not ready, but they will be.
“It’s nice. I know there are some good athletes, some good baseball players coming my way. We’re doing a good job with developing the younger kids right now.”
With 11 returners, Mrazek added five newcomers to his full-time roster and another four to the practice squad.
In his 10 years with the program, Mrazek has never seen such great interest and turnout as 14 hopefuls auditioned in addition to the 11 returners.
“Baseball is growing in Cranbrook right now,” Mrazek said. “We’re going to have 20 kids at a Bandits practice. That’s huge. I’ve never seen that.
“There’s a lot of pretty exciting stuff going on.”
Returning to the group with Montana State ‘B’ championship experience under their belts are Brendan Bird, Jake Bromley, Kei Chlopan, Rylan D’Etcheverrey, Cedar Kemp, Cayden McCormack, Carson Meggison, Daniel Mercandelli, Robert Nickell, Noah Renette and Tyler Thorn.
Joining the crew as rookies are Hayden Mastel, Linden Meggison, Greg Rebagliati, Parker Thomson and Brandon Thorn.
The practice roster includes Brayden Farquhar, Braiden Koran, Tanner McLean and Cameron Reid.
Putting the pieces together wasn’t an easy process for Mrazek.
“The hardest thing was where are they going to play?” Mrazek said. “I’ve got guys that are interested that can play at this level, but I’ve got five excellent outfielders right now. These guys aren’t going to take a spot there. They’re going to grow into it, but they’re not going to take a spot away from five 18- or 19-year-olds when they’re only 15 years old.
“The infield has a couple holes to fill and we’ll maybe slide some guys around, but what is opening up is also maybe not an area where these guys are going to play. I want to get them involved so they’re a part of the team and the program, because their time will come.
“The toughest part was where am I going to use them. I need extra arms for pitching. It’s a big commitment and they have to be okay filling the role of a pitcher that might get some starts, might be a middle guy.”
With the hard work away from the diamond in the books, Mrazek’s focus now shifts to preparing his charges for opening weekend of the American Legion Baseball season.
Set to play 46 games over the course of approximately 11 weeks, the mantra early on is simple — mechanics, hard work and routine.
“We always start very strong so maybe I should continue to do more of what we do early in the year,” Mrazek said with a laugh. “The last two or three years we’ve started very strong by working on good fundamentals and mechanics.
“We’re going to go over our signals. We do want to cover first and third, bunt defense. As long as we can cover some of those basics. We know we’re not going to cover all the situations in the first week.
“They should be able to make the routine plays. They’ve been playing their high school season already. As it advances we’ll focus more on situational practices and situational BP [batting practice], which are at game speed.”
With the big numbers emerging from tryouts, Mrazek is getting to work on developing a Junior Bandits program, which he expects to target and develop for youngsters aged 13 to 16 years old. The goal is to have the program up and running in time for next season, in addition to the regular Bandits squad, which is aimed for kids 15 to 19.
Mrazek is also in the process of working alongside Cranbrook Minor Baseball with younger groups, aged nine to 12.
All in all, baseball is heating up in Cranbrook.
Should everything go to plan with the 2016 edition of Mrazek’s Bandits, that trend will continue as they seek a third consecutive appearance at the Montana State ‘B’ championship.
Pursuit of that goal begins Saturday, May 14, in Libby, Mont., when the Bandits travel south for the Wood Bat Classic.
Home-opening action at Cranbrook’s Confederation Park is scheduled for Saturday, May 21, when the Bandits host Trail for a doubleheader.