On a sunny Wednesday evening at the baseball diamond next to the civic centre, Gavin McNeice steps up to bat at home plate.
The 16-year-old is tall and broad, but his swing is loose and relaxed. In the Kaien Island Slo-pitch league, his team is down early in the game, the result of giving up five runs in the prior inning, but they have runners in scoring position and McNeice, a power hitter, looks set to drive in some runs.
The first pitch is delivered and takes a high, slow arch before falling right into the strike zone. McNeice swings hard, never taking his eye off the ball, making clean contact and firing it between two outfielders. He successfully brings home two runs and makes it to second base on the double.
McNeice is no stranger to close softball games. Along with fellow Rupertite Avery Lorette, the young pitcher and third baseman was recently a member of the North West Zone 7 team that won gold at the recent BC Summer Games tournament that took place in Cowichan.
The team went 5-0 during that tournament to win including a nail-biting comeback victory against Cariboo North East 8-7 in the semi-finals and a close 5-3 victory against Thompson-Okanagan in the gold medal game.
“It felt amazing to win those games, for it all to be over and for the stress of the tournament to be gone,” said McNeice, talking about competing at the games.
Despite his recent success, on the field McNeice’s original sports love was between the goal posts on the ice.
McNeice was introduced to hockey when he was four years old. He came up through Prince Rupert’s Minor Hockey ranks, eventually settling into the role of goalie for the city’s bantam and midget teams. He said he admired the great Calgary Flames goalie Miika Kiprusoff and tried to emulate his style on the ice when he played.
“I really don’t know why I enjoyed playing, but it was just fun for me,” he said.
McNeice’s introduction to softball came only three years ago when Prince Rupert restarted its minor softball league after years of inactivity. Since it was still a fledgling program without a lot of developed players, McNeice said he struggled to learn some of the fundamentals of the game early in his development.
“When we started, no one really knew how to pitch, so hitting could be quite difficult,” he said. “So it was a lot of just walking I guess.”
Despite the slow start, McNeice developed a strong game. In particular, he developed skill as a pitcher grounded in an effective four-seam fastball and a deceptive knuckleball.
“It took a lot of practice,” he said regarding the development of his arm and overall game. “Learning the movements and technique is difficult in addition to timing the release correctly to find the strike zone consistently.”
This past spring, McNeice, along with Lorette made weekly trips to Terrace where the pair tried out for the Zone 7 team that would be competing at the games. Immediately, McNeice noticed a difference in the tone of the practices versus what he was used to in Prince Rupert.
“It was a little more serious,” he said. “We’re all friends in Rupert, so it’s kind of having fun, but preparing for the games was a bit more intense.”
Avery and McNeice were told that they were two of four northwestern athletes who would be competing for three spots on the team, meaning there was a chance one of them might not make the trip to Cowichan.
“That made us practice and work even harder to make the team because neither one of us wanted to go home,” McNeice said.
Eventually, all four players made the team, despite what the coaches had said. McNeice said even though he was relieved to have made the team, he said he felt pressure to play his best on the provincial stage.
“I wouldn’t say that it was nervous representing Prince Rupert, I would say it’s more nervous to represent ourselves to show that we can actually play ball,” he said.
After winning gold with the team, McNeice said he is excited to keep playing and is looking forward to the next challenge on the field. He said he would keep playing the game as long as he can to put Prince Rupert on the map.
“It’s fun,” he said. “And I just love competing.”