Why on earth were Turlock children wearing maple leaf hats and chanting “Canada” on Friday?
Credit Turlock City Councilmember Amy Bublak – and a little cross-cultural exchange, featuring the Simon Fraser University softball team.
The team, from a college in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, is in town to play in the annual Tournament of Champions Presented by Mizuno. The Turlock-based NCAA Division II tournament features 27 of the best teams from California to Oregon, Hawaii, and, yes, Canada.
“When we travel, we want to do community service,” said Simon Fraser and Canadian Olympic team head coach Mike Renney. “We want (our players) to understand that they have a lot of things, and they can give a lot to the community.”
Simon Fraser is in its first full year of NCAA Division II play, having left the Canadian equivalent collegiate league. Though the school is new to the NCAA, it enters the American league with an unmistakeable Turlock connection – the school's athletic director, Milt Richards, is both Bublak's husband and the former athletic director for California State University, Stanislaus.
At first, the chances of doing any sort of community outreach in Turlock seemed slim. Because of spring break, players wouldn't be able to visit schools as usual.
But Bublak made a few calls, worked with Turlock Parks, Recreation, and Public Facilities Superintendent Allison Van Guilder, and found an opening during the City of Turlock's Spring Break Camp, staffed by afterschool program workers.
“Youth is my passion,” Bublak said.
Though many campers at the War Memorial wore San Francisco Giants gear on Friday, the Canadian team had children, age 5 to 11, changing ball caps quickly.
Kids asked questions about playing baseball, getting to college, and, of course, the mysterious great white north.
One Simon Frasier player, Alex Baylak, a freshman outfielder from Saskatchewan, held her hand up to her waist when asked how much snow is on the ground there. Simon Fraser, located near Vancouver, is often plagued by rain and snow as well; the school had to clear snow off the field four times last year, Renney said, just to play regularly scheduled games.
Few campers had ever seen snow, they said, wearing shorts and enjoying Turlock's sunny day.
Campers earned Canadian hats, banners, buttons and pennies for their questions and answers. The souvenirs help to build a unique connection with the children, Renney said, leaving a lasting impression so that children will want to see Canada for themselves one day.
Trisha Bochard, a senior outfielder, said the team has enjoyed Turlock so far – though most of their time has been spent in the hotel or on the field. Local officials have been trying to make the team comfortable, as Van Guilder and Bublak were even able to obtain a Canadian flag – on loan from Pitman High School – to fly at this weekend's tournament.
But those good feelings for Turlock will be put on hold at 3:45 p.m. Saturday, when Simon Fraser will take on CSU Stanislaus in the Tournament of Champions on Pedretti Park's field No. 3.
“I have to beat my old school,” Richards said.
When the two schools face off on Saturday, one thing's for certain: they'll have a few new fans in the grandstands.
“Go Canada!” a camper shouted.