Earlier this month, Douglas College Royals baseball head coach Cav Whitely received the Lionel Ruhr Elite Coach of the Year award from Baseball Canada, the sport's governing body at the national level.
Whitely received the award for his dual responsibilities as the head coach of both the Royals and Team BC. Said to be at "his all-time best" by Baseball Canada, Whitely led a "scrappy" Team BC to an appearance in the final of the Baseball Canada Cup U17 tournament.
Many of the standout players in Whitely's 2017 Royals team were in their final years for Douglas, but despite the roster turnover, the Royals fought their way to a divisional playoff spot. Whitely has a knack for helping players make a jump from one level to the next, and did so with the Royals' 2018 roster made almost entirely from freshmen and sophomores.
Whitely says a major part of the adjustment to the college level is in the mental game, and being able to process the slew of additional factors and considerations that need to be made at this level of the game.
"I think a lot of it is just understanding what that level looks like - what the elite level of baseball is," said Whitely of what his players need to do to excel in what is a transitional stage of their baseball careers. "From going to being a decent high school player to all of a sudden having to look at major league drafts and college scholarships, and staying in Canada versus going to the US."
Much of Whitely's interest in the mental side of baseball stems from his sports psychology background, which has been a major influence in his coaching style and a key part of his continued success throughout a career approaching its 25th year.
"When I came here, I found a real difference at the highest level of not the physical talent and the physical tools but the ability to make the mental adjustments, to be able to handle adversity in all areas of their life, and to manage that when they step on the field. So when I get a chance to talk to high school players about that, I think that's an area that a lot of coaches in high school don't really have the time or background to do with the athletes yet."
Sports psychology is a relatively foreign concept in high school ball, but when Whitely gets a new crop of elite-level high school players to take to national tournaments, they buy what Whitely's selling.
"I find especially the elite athletes at the high school level just soak it up… the Team BC guys just love to talk about visualization. They love to talk about increasing confidence, they love to talk about the mental toughness side of the game because they've been practicing and playing games for so long… I think they see a lot of benefit from. This is what the highest level of baseball is, and the talent separators aren't as big anymore between players or between levels, so they have to have to win the mental battles to give them an advantage or a leg up on the competition."
After an excellent showing with Team BC in August, Whitely will now look to improve on a great 2018 Royals season when games begin again in a few months' time.
"Last year we had a team that really came together quickly and we were really able to push themselves and we had a lot of freshmen in that group. I think we have a really really strong core group of guys, and we tried to surround them with as much talent as possible from the young guys. So on almost every major position we'll have a good returning sophomore that's been to the super regionals before, understands what we're trying to accomplish here."
Whitely took a team of mostly first and second-year players to the 2018 Super Regionals, but in 2019, he has his sights set on the NWAC Championships, and he believes his team has what it takes to get there.
"Something we always push is 'Hey ,we're the only ones wearing the [Canadian] flag, let's use that to our advantage.' We're a national team every time we cross the border, and let's try to prove that point every single year. So our goal is to get back to the NWAC [championship], and it's a realistic one this year because of the guys who have been battle-tested in years past. Now we've seen what it takes to get there, I think that they'll be able to handle the schedule and the competition level of our conference a lot better than some of the freshmen in the past have. We're looking forward to seeing what this group is capable of."