The Orillia Legion Minor Baseball (OLMB) program has grown tremendously over the past 10 years.
The association now has almost 500 local youth players register every year, there is a rep team at every level and players now have a place to train in the off-season as they opened a 4,000-square-foot indoor training facility this past winter.
The man behind a great deal of this progress is OLMB president Wes Winkel.
Before the 42-year-old Listowel native joined the board of directors, OLMB had endured more than a decade without a competitive rep team and hadn’t seen a provincial champion since the early 1980s.
The board was signing more than 50 releases a year for Orillia’s most talented baseball players to pursue their careers away from home. Most headed to Barrie to play in their rep program.
Winkel decided he was going to change that once his own children became interested in playing competitive baseball.
“Being a small business owner it’s very hard for me to get back and forth to Barrie for practices all the time, and we have baseball in Orillia, so why can’t we have rep program?” Winkel wondered.
Winkel was told Orillia wasn’t big enough, there aren’t enough players, and they aren't able to compete with teams from other markets across Ontario. Winkel decided to join the board to try to disprove that theory.
In his first year, Winkel convinced the board to let him run a rep team. Every year since, OLMB has added more rep teams. Entering the 2020 season there would have been a record 10 Orillia rep teams before the pandemic halted the beginning of the season.
The talented midget rep team coached by Winkel won the York Simcoe League title five years in a row and would go on to end a long Orillia drought, winning the provincial championship twice.
“The success that those kids had made people start to believe that Orillia could have a successful rep program and there was a lot more buy-in,” Winkel explained.
During the last five championship seasons, some of the team's top players still outgrew the competitive levels offered in Orillia and have moved on to elite programs from around the province. That just provided opportunities for others, Winkel said.
“We would fill those spots with players from lower levels or house league and then we would start getting them to buy in and make them a part of our team,” Winkel said.
During the winter months, Winkel turns his attention from the diamond to the rink. Not surprisingly Winkel’s work ethic and competitiveness has also resulted in success for the Orillia Minor Hockey Association teams he has coached.
Winkel has coached the rep midget team five of the last eight years. In all five of those seasons, his teams won their league titles and they also won back-to-back provincial championships.
“Parents would complain that I was a little too demanding or I ask for too much commitment from the players, but as soon as they have other coaches come in and they see the success drop off, they realize that the two go hand in hand,” Winkel said.
While Winkel says all of the credit for the championships his teams have won in both hockey and baseball are attributed to the players, he knows that it’s the work ethic that he instills in his players that pushes them to be successful.
“It’s something I try to show as a coach and it’s something the team emulates. We tell them right from the start of the year, ‘This is what it takes to be successful.’ And if they don’t want to do it, we suggest they don’t try out for the team,” he said.
Beyond championship banners and trophies, the number one thing Winkel wants to see as a coach is for his players to develop into successful and responsible young adults.
“If you can instill kids with that kind of work ethic from a young age, they will go on to succeed in other areas of life,” Winkel explained.
“I watch all the kids I’ve coached now and they all have summer jobs, they are all good students, and that, to me, is the part I take the most pride in.”
Winkel has given much of his adult life to volunteering with the local sporting community, sacrificing time from family and friends to continue his commitment to give local youth a chance to play at a high level and learn the skills they need to grow into successful people.
Winkel said he plans on staying involved in the Orillia sports community for the foreseeable future.