Panthers GM looking ahead to 'very open' IBL season

By: Mark Pare

With no import players coming up for 2021, the IBL championship could be anyone's ball game.

After what he called "an off season like no other," the general manager for Kitchener Panthers feels it's going to be a "very open" season in the Intercounty Baseball League.

But with some decent pitching, Mike Boehmer believes the Panthers could challenge for their first IBL Championship since 2001.

Kitchener has been on the doorstep, losing four of the last five IBL championship series, all to the Barrie Baycats (2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019).

"We decided that we would work hard under the premise that there would be baseball this summer," Boehmer said, "And if there wasn't going to be, we'd have some groundwork done for 2022."

It's going to be a different-looking Panthers team this year, both on and off the field, but it's not really a rebuild.

Don Menard will lead the way as field manager, while Javier Herrera Lanza works with the team's Cuban imports.

But with the pandemic, that role will look slightly different, as IBL teams won't take in any import players for 2021.

"We've been very happy with the Cuban imports that we brought up the last four years," Boehmer said, "We've got an excellent relationship with INDER and the Cuban Baseball Federation, so we anticipate going back to that next year, when we're allowed to bring imports in."

So it'll be a much more Canadian lineup for Kitchener.

"We've got a lot of kids from Wilfrid Laurier," Boehmer said, "We've got an excellent relationship. Scott Ballantyne, the field manager there, is also involved with the Panthers and Laurier's won the last two OUA Championships."

Both of those teams have featured Christian Hauck on the mound.

It's anticipated that Hauck, who turns 24 next Sunday, will anchor the starting rotation.

He's got plenty of experience in the IBL, including two seasons with the Panthers, collecting an 8-5 record (season and playoffs).

Another familiar face will be pitcher Stephen Gade, one of a few University of Waterloo players set to take the field.

Brady Schnarr will also be back.

"He might be ready to take on the closing role," Boehmer said of the right-handed hurler Schnarr, "We'll see, but he's a good young pitcher."

But it's not just the pitching that's creating excitement.

Ayr native Liam Wilson, who was a part of the Panthers for the second half of the 2019 season, will make his return.

He has experience with Canisius College (NCAA Division I), and has been playing down in Australia.

Wilson was batting .398 in 2019 for Kitchener (season and playoffs), including 47 hits in 30 games and at least a hit in every game of the 2019 IBL Final.

"In our view, (Wilson)'s one of the top players in the IBL," Boehmer said, "He's a real slugger, and a tremendous first baseman."

On top of that, a much healthier and surgically repaired Keegan Marsden will come back, after shoulder issues slowed down his progress, going from a .288 average in 2018 to .218 in 2019.

Boehmer also had high praise for the returning Andy Leader, calling him "the top defensive centre fielder in the league."

"I don't know that the IBL keeps statistics on outfield assists, but if they did, he would certainly lead the league in that category every year," he said.

Boehmer said Leader, another Canisius player, will likely bat in the leadoff spot.

He had a .303 batting average for the Panthers in 2019 and a .361 on-base percentage.

Boehmer compared Leader to Blue Jays legend Ricky Henderson for his approach on the bases, calling him "very disruptive, interferes with pitchers, steals bases."

"He'll be a key to our success this year," he said.

Boehmer feels they'll be a competitive team nonetheless, and they are working on signing a couple of other pitchers.

On the field, expect a young, aggressive and fast team.

"I know our field manager likes hit and runs, like steals, likes going first to third, and that's the kind of team we've got," Boehmer said.

The IBL still has yet to announce an official start date to the 2021 season.

At this stage, the league is looking at either July 1 or July 15, and there are many questions still unanswered.

But when the day comes, the Panthers have their eyes on a very competitive campaign.

Story Courtesy Kitchener Today