Bennett Freiter announced his arrival at Okotoks Academy in 2019 with a memorable, thunderous at bat.
It put the raw, untested 16-year-old kid from St. Andrews up against former Okotoks lefty Graham Brunner, who was now attending a prominent junior college baseball program in Kansas and capable of throwing a 90 m.p.h.-plus fastball.
The showdown, coming during an exhibition game between the school team and an alumni squad consisting of former Dawgs standouts, is something Jeff Duda won't soon forget.
"Graham had just blown a fastball by him and I said he wouldn't want to risk it again because the kid can hit, he's gonna make the adjustment," says Duda, the academy's head coach who was umpiring that day. "He goes, 'I'll put a little extra something on it,' and that pitch, (Freiter) hit it dead centre about 410 feet for two-run home run.
"They beat the alumni on that home run... His next time up, he hit a double off the right-centre wall, off Graham again."
In the 16 months since moving to attend school and play baseball in Alberta, Freiter's game has evolved. His power game has been refined and he also hits for average, while his catching skills have also been upgraded with improved footwork, receiving and blocking technique to supplement a rocket arm.
It was a skill set that attracted the attention of U.S. college scouts. Freiter considered offers from Illinois State and Marshall before making a verbal commitment to Division I North Dakota State University in Fargo last summer.
When he signed a national letter of intent with NDSU in November, it was the culmination of more than two years of planning and advance scouting on both the baseball and academic fronts.
"I did a ton of research and started to send out some preliminary introductory emails to some schools and kind of throughout Grade 10 and 11 years I was sending occasional updates to coaches that showed interest," says Freiter, who turns 18 in May. "I tried to get any video I could out to them and North Dakota State's coaches, we had a bit of contact back and forth during that process.
"And then in the summer we started playing some exhibition games and we got some really good highlight videos and be able to send that to North Dakota State — they really liked it. And then kind of a couple calls later it led to an offer."
With the Okotoks' training and competitive seasons severely hampered by the pandemic, it hasn't been easy to remain in peak form. Intrasquad games were the norm most of fall and masks became mandatory during practice.
Academy teams headed to the Dawgs' large indoor facility once the weather turned colder but a major shutdown in Alberta reduced training groups to four. Individual workouts became standard in December.
Fortunately for Freiter, video evidence and other research had already sold the NDSU Bison coaching staff.
"We start with the defensive position and find somebody that can really handle velocity back there," says Bison head coach Tod Brown. "He's shown that he can do that. And then he has exceptional arm strength, which is key to shutting down the running game. And then you throw his bat in there and tell you what, he has such a big, powerful, swing that we really feel like he's going to be able to hit at our level as well."
The college connection for Freiter has always been more than just about baseball. The son of a junior high school principal, he was keenly aware of the NDSU's engineering school.
"I've always thought university meant academics first and I just have a really big passion for electronics," says Freiter. "So I knew electrical engineering would be a really good fit for me. And then as I was looking at potential fits, North Dakota State stood out quickly, because they have a really good electrical engineering program. So that was a massive part of the decision."
Freiter's drive and intensity have set him apart, even at Okotoks, where 17 of his current teammates have U.S. college or junior college commitments lined up.
"Yeah, he's serious and he's pretty stoic honestly," says Duda. "He's hard to get a read on sometimes but you know with everything that he does, he puts his nose to the grindstone and he gets after it. He takes both the school and baseball side of things very serious."
Freiter's attention to detail on the field and in the weight room has paid dividends.
"This is the second year that he's been in the program and seeing how much he is really polished up his baseball IQ, I think it's certainly benefited him," says Duda. "Allowing him to take what he's already good at physically and just making them much better but studying and understanding the game better, both on the defensive side of things as a catcher and the plate."
A 6-4, 215-pounder, Freiter's frame is bigger than usual for a catcher, which can lead to more wear and tear on his body. He's learning to deal with that, too.
"I stretch a lot for sure to be able to stay mobile," he says. "We have a really good weight(-training) coach, who gives us a lot of stretches to do. And we've been learning how to take care of our bodies. It's really helping."
He's come a long way since quitting hockey in Grade 8 to concentrate on baseball and credits the Winnipeg Junior Goldeyes winter program, directed by head coach Jon Ali, for helping to spark a desire to play the game in the off-season. Freiter says spending Grade 9 and 10 in the program was instrumental in reaching the college level.
"There's a lot of amazing coaches there, they really help you stay interested in baseball," says Freiter. "They played a massive part in how I was able to attend Okotoks."
Duda, who also serves as an associate scout in Western Canada for MLB's Washington Nationals, says Freiter is probably only scratching the surface of his potential.
He sees a pro career in Freiter's future.
If Okotoks is able to go ahead and play its spring schedule to showcase himself further, it would seem Freiter could improve his status for the Major League Baseball first-year player draft in July.
"He already has the tools," says Duda. "He has the ability to hit for power and will hit for average and he has an above-average arm. For his age, (his arm is) the average of the professional level already. He's not far off from potentially getting his name called in the draft."
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