Denny Benson talks softly but wields a big bat.
The Rama First Nation fastball star’s bat was loud and instrumental in Team Ontario’s impressive run to a gold medal in the men’s softball competition last week at the Canada Summer Games in Manitoba.
“It was such an honour to be on the team — there was so much talent, it was just crazy,” said Benson, who was all smiles after returning home Saturday with his gold medal. “It was an awesome, awesome time.”
But Benson, 21, almost missed the opportunity. During one of Team Ontario’s first training camps two years ago, he was injured and unable to attend. He later emailed officials, informing them he was still hopeful of a tryout. When he didn’t hear back, he thought his window of opportunity had closed.
“But then (Team Ontario coaches) saw me play in a tournament and they asked me if I was interested in coming to their final training camp in Kitchener,” Benson said. “I said, ‘Sure. Why not?’”
He so impressed the coaches at that event last summer, he was one of the final handful of players added to the powerhouse squad.
“I was really surprised to be picked,” said Benson. “The team has so much talent. I wasn’t sure I would make it.”
But Team Ontario officials simply witnessed what local fastball fans have seen first-hand for several years: a sure-handed first-baseman and pitcher who consistently gets key hits at key times. Despite being “very nervous” to compete on “the big stage” at the Canada Summer Games, Benson was almost unstoppable at the plate in the nine-game round-robin portion of the tournament that featured the country’s top ball players.
In those nine games, Benson helped his team compile a 7-2 record. He was red hot, posting a sizzling .429 batting average while leading all hitters with five home runs and finishing second in runs batted in with 13. He continued his torrid pace in the semifinals, where he helped Team Ontario stun previously unbeaten Saskatchewan 11-1.
Saskatchewan bounced back to eke out an 8-7 heart stopper over Quebec to earn a rematch with Ontario in the gold-medal contest. In the tournament’s opening game, Saskatchewan handed Ontario one of its two defeats in the round robin when it edged Ontario 6-4. In the tourney’s final game, in the championship game, Ontario prevailed. Saskatchewan struck first with a first-inning run, but Team Ontario, riding stellar pitching and timely hitting, rallied to earn a 4-1 victory to become Canada’s champions in a game at the John Blumberg Softball Complex in Headingley, Man.
“It was crazy,” Benson said of the victory. “That moment you realize that you won it … it was incredible. I played the whole (gold-medal) game and it was definitely the highlight of my baseball career.”
The Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute graduate said it was the team’s depth that paved the way to glory.
“The pitching we had was unreal and we just had so much depth,” he said. “For me, after the first game, it felt really good. I just took a deep breath, remembered why I was there and what got me there … It was an amazing experience.”
Benson, who fell in love with fastball as a tot growing up in Rama, helped Team Ontario win bronze at the 2014 North American Indigenous Games in Saskatchewan. “That was a lot of fun … but it’s even better to win gold,” he said. “I was just so happy to be part of it.”
Now, it’s back to reality — to his on-call firefighting job with the Rama Fire Department and, of course, back to local diamonds. Like most summers, he’s playing on several teams this year.
“I’m always playing ball,” said Benson, who thanked his parents for igniting his passion for the game and for taking him “all over the province” to play. “I just love being out there, playing the game. I just want to keep doing it for as long as I can.