The White Rock Tritons open the 2016 season Saturday afternoon at South Surrey Athletic Park.

The White Rock Tritons open the 2016 season Saturday afternoon at South Surrey Athletic Park.

New-look White Rock Tritons aim for playoffs

BC Premier Baseball League squad begins season this weekend in South Surrey.

It may not yet feel quite like spring, but believe it or not, the BC Premier Baseball League season is right around the corner.

Weather permitting, of course.

The White Rock Tritons are set to open the under-18 BC Premier Baseball League season tomorrow (Saturday) when – if the rain holds off – they’ll host the visiting North Shore Twins for a pair of games, at noon and 2:30 p.m., respectively.

And though the team’s uniforms will look the same as the previous season, much has changed in the Tritons’ universe since they walked off the field last summer, having missed the playoffs for the second straight season.

The biggest change comes near the top, as Kyle Dhanani replaces outgoing Russ Smithson as head coach.

Smithson coached the team for six seasons, but officially left in August. Both he and Tritons’ general manager Marty Lehn said at the time that the parting was mutual, with Smithson telling Peace Arch News “I didn’t ask for a new contract, and we didn’t have any talks about renewing.”

Contacted by PAN Tuesday, Lehn – who was in Arizona – said he is excited about the new direction of the team under the 28-year-old Dhanani, who is a former Tritons’ player himself who played at the university level, and also played five years of pro ball after being a draft pick of Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers in 2009. Lehn was a scout for the Brewers at the time.

Last year, Dhanani – who was away from the team this week on a personal matter and could not be reached – coached Alberta’s Brooks Bombers of the Western Major Baseball League.

“He’s fantastic. Kyle is all-baseball – he’s there to do early work with the guys, and his work ethic is very, very strong. The players are all very excited to work with him and be around him,” Lehn said.

“He’s got the kids responding well to him – he’s got that notoriety, being an ex-pro – so it’s worked out well so far.

“He’s passionate about turning this ship around.”

The Tritons have been treading water in the PBL in recent years. They earned a playoff spot in 2014, which ended a five-year postseason drought, but they were unable to build on that success in the past two seasons, finishing outside the top-8 each time. They were close in 2015, however – White Rock wasn’t eliminated from playoff contention until the final day of the season.

Lehn was taking a longer-term view of the team, with regard to returning it to the post-season. This year’s team “will be very competitive” he said, and he told PAN he thought they’d compete for a playoff spot. But it’s the two years beyond this one that get the third-year general manager and longtime scout excited.

“This group that’s coming up from the junior team, it’s looking really good… they were 27-13 (win-loss) last year,” he said.

We have a lot of Grade 11s who will get playing time this year, so next year, when they’re Grade 12 players, they’ll be that much stronger, and more groomed.

“I think 2018 and 2019, those White Rock teams are going to be very good and have a chance to be a top team in the league. They’re not going to be below .500, let’s put it that way.”

Though this year’s squad isn’t chock full of returnees, Lehn was excited about a handful, including pitchers Matt Leeder and jack-of-all-trades Allen Hogg, who missed most of last year due to injury.

“(Hogg) is a very, very nice player – he can basically do it all,” Lehn said.

“He’s a pitcher but he’s also one of our best athletes, so you could put in the outfield, or at shortstop or third base… a dual-position guy, definitely. And he can swing the bat.”

Another newcomer, Spencer Davis, will be among the oldest players on the team. He’s already graduated from high school in Saskatchewan, but is still young enough to play this year at the U-18 level.

“He’s a real nice addition,” Lehn said.

Earlier this month, the Tritons travelled south to Arizona to play exhibition games against a variety of opponents, including college-level teams. In addition to escaping the rain, the team gained valuable experience as the PBL season dawns.

“They had a real nice run down here in Tucson,” Lehn said. “They played some good teams, and I think it was a really good experience for them.”

Now back on their home turf, Lehn stressed the club will have to be “good fundamental baseball” if they’re to have success.

“I think we have a pretty good balanced team. We’ve got some guys who, offensively, will do some good things, and I think we’ve got some good pitchers, too,” he said.

“We have some speed, a little bit of power, and we have pitchers who can throw strikes even if they aren’t going to come in and light up the radar gun.

“I know the guys are excited.”

• The Tritons will play their first six games at South Surrey Athletic Park.

Beyond Saturday’s opening games, White Rock will host the Okanagan Athletics for four games the following weekend – two on Saturday, April 8, and two more on Sunday, April 9.