From the Big Ten to the little park on Caledonia, baseball is coming full circle for Kelly Norris-Jones.
The Lambrick Park Secondary graduate, Blue Jays draft pick and former Canada U-18 catcher will be a junior with the University of Illinois Fighting Illini in the spring and a Victoria HarbourCat in the summer.
Norris-Jones is among three B.C. players the HarbourCats announced this morning that they have signed for the 2014 West Coast League season at Royal Athletic Park. The others are Seattle University infielder Griffin Andreychuk from Nanaimo and HarbourCats returning outfielder and Surrey-native Nick Rutchkyj from Cuesta College in California.
“Playing in front of my hometown fans is going to be a great experience,” said Norris-Jones, the son of HarbourCats marketing director Brad Norris-Jones.
“I remember the energized atmosphere at [Victoria] Seals games [a defunct minor-pro team that played at RAP] and loved being in the stands. And it’s not just baseball. Victoria is such a great all-round sports town.”
Norris-Jones started 42 games as catcher in the Big Ten for Illinois in his freshman season but was limited to 13 starts in 2013 as a sophomore because of a concussion. Norris-Jones and his Fighting Illini made the NCAA tournament in 2013 but were knocked out in the first sectional by No. 1-ranked Vanderbilt.
“The school spirit and environment in the NCAA, especially for football and basketball, is on a whole other level,” noted Norris-Jones.
He was selected by the Blue Jays in the last round of the 2010 MLB draft but not signed. Players become draft eligible again in their junior season of college and five-foot-11, 185-pound Norris-Jones knows this is a big year to again prove himself on the diamond. The 22-year-old is an honour roll student and considering law school, with an eye to being a sports agent in a civilian career, but it’s playing baseball that is the main focus right now.
“Pro ball is still on the radar . . . that’s my dream,” said the former Victoria Mariners junior and B.C. Premier League first-team all-star, who has won a Big-Ten championship at Illinois, and a Canada Cup gold medal for the youth national team in a tournament in which he was named top catcher.
“I’m a defensive catcher and call my own games. Offensively, I’m a patient batter and gap hitter. The challenge is, I have to do that at the next level.”
The WCL is a summer league featuring top-rated U.S. collegiate NCAA prospects. A total of 57 players who have performed in the WCL were selected in the 2013 MLB draft. Norris-Jones played in the WCL for the Kelowna Falcons in 2012. He played summer ball in the Northwoods League in 2013 for the Green Bay Bullfrogs.
“I would rate the WCL and Northwoods leagues as equal and comparable,” said Norris-Jones.
The HarbourCats finished second in attendance in their inaugural 2013 WCL season with a per-game average of 1,437 fans over 27 home dates. That total does not include the WCL all-time single-game record 4,210 fans who turned out for the 2013 WCL all-star game in Victoria.
The HarbourCats were 22-32 last season under veteran collegiate and pro baseball skipper Dennis Rogers, who is returning to coach the club.
“Kelly [Norris-Jones] is a MLB draft choice who has won a college championship and can provide leadership,” said Rogers, in a statement.
“Griffin [Andreychuk] can play middle infield, with excellent defensive tools and a quick bat, and Nick [Rutchkyj] is a pure energy outfielder who will run through a wall to win a game.”
Norris-Jones, Rutchkyj and Andreychuk will be signing autographs for fans on Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon inside the HarbourCats team offices at 101—1814 Vancouver Street.
The HarbourCats open the 54-game 2014 regular season with three road dates June 6-8 in Kelowna against the Falcons. The home opener at RAP is June 10 against the Cowlitz Black Bears from Kelso/Longview, Wash.
The HarbourCats will announce further player signings for 2104 in the new year.