Jim Swanson has good praise for Kelowna Falcons. He also calls them one of Victoria’s biggest — and best — rivals.
The Victoria HarbourCats are in the Okanagan this week to play the Falcons. The three-game series runs today through Thursday at Elks Stadium, with all games starting at 6:35 p.m.
“Kelowna is a bigger draw, to be sure, when they visit,” said Swanson, a former journalist who is Victoria’s managing partner. “It’s a Canadian thing, a rivalry that’s there for sure. We have three rivals: Bellingham, Port Angeles, which is just 17 miles away from us, and Kelowna. The Canada thing really does come into play.”
Mark Nonis, Kelowna’s general manager, said, “It’s a really good rivalry. There’s a lot of pride in both cities and both teams.”
In the West Coast League, there are 11 teams, and only two are Canadian-based: Kelowna and Victoria. The rest are either from Washington state or Oregon. Further, the two B.C. teams both play in the North Division, as do the Port Angeles Lefties, Yakima Valley Pippins and Wenatchee AppleSox.
“Sports fans in Kelowna know where Victoria is, and there’s also the long-winded rivalry in hockey,” said Nonis, referring to the Kelowna Rockets and Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League. “Some fans may not know where some [WCL] teams are from, but with Victoria, it’s instant recognition. It’s an old-city rivalry and there’s a lot of hometown pride going on.”
Though the 2018 season has just started, the WCL is a short, collegiate summer league where every game counts, so don’t expect this series to be a friendly, Canadian campfire encounter.
“With the Western Hockey League, Victoria and Kelowna fans don’t like each other, so maybe [the rivalry] is ingrained,” Swason said. “There’s certainly a spike [in attendance] when Kelowna comes to town, and this year, Kelowna visits us for a Canada Day series, which will be perfect for everybody.”
Added Nonis, “Two seasons ago, we had a game with Victoria and it ended in a bench-clearing brawl. So, yeah, these games do mean something. They knocked us out of the playoffs last year, and we have nine returning players, so, as I said, it’s a really good rivalry.”
Regarding this year, Victoria (3-3) has a slightly better record than Kelowna (2-4). Leading the North Division are Yakima Valley (6-3) and Port Angeles (6-4). But, again, it’s early.
The Falcons had Monday off following a three-game road trip in Longview, Wash., against the Cowlitz Black Bears. Cowlitz won the opener, 6-2, with Kelowna winning 8-6 in 12 innings on Saturday. In Sunday’s finale, Cowlitz rallied from an 8-1 deficit in the sixth inning to win 9-8.
Nonis said his team’s pitching is a bit rusty so far, but that the club’s offence and defence is excellent.
“I felt we outplayed Cowlitz in all three games and we wound up with two losses,” said Nonis. “But it’s early and we don’t have our full staff yet. We have some players in [college] playoffs and others are taking final exams. By this coming weekend, we should have another 12-15 players, and in two weeks’ time, we should have a full roster [of 40].”
Swanson says his team is awaiting six or so players, with four currently competing in the College World Series.
In discussing the Falcons, Swanson said Nonis “puts together a good ball club. He doesn’t have high-end players; he tends to focus on players who are really hungry, and he tends to find them well.”
“That’s fair comment,” said Nonis. “Some teams in this league are tied into certain universities, so our goal is to find players based on personalities. Instead of taking the best player, maybe we look at taking the second-best player because he’s out working hard every day.
“(Work ethic) counts because, in this league, it’s the dog days of summer with 54 games in 65 days.”
Victoria is coached by Brian McRae, a former Major League center fielder. In 10 seasons, he played for the Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, Colorado Rockies and Toronto Blue Jays. During his career, he had a .261 batting average with 103 home runs, 532 RBIs and 196 stolen bases. He played just 31 games with Toronto during the 1999 season, but had 16 hits, 3 home runs and 11 RBIs.
Kelowna is coached by Bryan Donohue, who is in his third season with the Falcons. Donohue has WCL experience as well, playing for the Corvallis Knights in 2006. He also holds the all-time career batting average record at George Fox University, where he graduated with honours, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in business.
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