By Martin Cleary
Conner Hopper was eight years old when he played his final year of soccer.
At one point that season, his attention wandered for a few seconds as he noticed the Fitzroy Harbour park also had a softball diamond.
“I grew up playing soccer,” Hopper said in a phone interview this week. “The soccer field and softball diamond were across from each other. One time, I looked over and talked to my mom about switching (to softball).”
It made sense.
A number of Hopper’s best friends from school were hitting the ball, running bases and scoring runs in houseleague softball games across the way. He wanted to be a part of that squad, talk about the game the next day and have a lot of fun.
“Maybe I was tired of soccer. Maybe it was the ping of the ball off the bat. It was a good decision, anyway,” he added.
Playing softball under the leadership of West Carleton Electric coach Adam Brown for the past decade has served him well. Hopper built a solid foundation of skills, played on competitive local and out-of-town teams and caught the attention of coaches and scouts as he became an all-around catcher.
Earlier this month, Hopper was selected to his first national softball team and will represent Canada at the U18 Men’s Softball World Cup from Nov. 11-19 in Hermosillo, Mexico.
Hopper, 18, was hoping to make his first national team, after having a solid tryout camp in Napanee, where he ranked second in offensive statistics.
“My heart skipped a few beats,” recalled Hopper, a first-year human kinetics student at the University of Ottawa. “I was in the middle of a class, when (head coach) Mark (Quinn) texted me. He asked me if I was open for a phone call.”
“I said I was in a lecture (European history from 1600 to the 21st century), but could call him later. I was pretty blown away. I got quite the surprise for a Thursday afternoon.”
While he has completed his local men’s and U20 softball seasons in the Fitzroy Harbour, Greater Ottawa and Glen Cairn fastball leagues, he’ll spend the next two months training alongside the University of Ottawa women’s softball team under coaches Steph Bouchey and Scott Searle.
“I’m extremely excited. Ever since a few years ago when I played in New Zealand on kind of a national team, I wanted to make Team Canada,” Hopper said. “It’s a dream come true.”
A few months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports in March, 2020, he played for a Saskatchewan team as a 15-year-old at a major championship in New Zealand. The Prairie team won all 16 games, but couldn’t accept the gold medal as it was an out-of-country entry.
“It was one of the greatest feelings of my life,” Hopper recalled. “I have lots of memories.”
At the Canadian men’s U17 softball championships, Hopper was called up to play for Napanee and helped the Express win the silver medal.
There also have been plenty of other moments that have caught the attention of Team Canada and Ontario coaches and scouts.
While playing softball at the 2022 Ontario Summer Games, he smacked a 340-foot home run over the fence on a baseball diamond as a 17-year-old, which is considered a massive feat in softball circles.
“He had an unreal tournament at the plate for the U17 Provincial Elimination tournament,” Brown wrote in an email interview. “Conner is an exceptional hitter for his age group (U20) and at the men’s level, too. He hits for power, for average and is very fast on the base paths.
“Defensively, he is a great catcher with an excellent arm. He is also versatile (and) able to play any defensive position other than pitcher.”
While he was a notable player in football, rugby, basketball and volleyball at Arnprior District High School, his dedication to being an all-around softball player has brought him to the national-team level.
“Conner is an exceptional athlete, who has done a lot to improve his game, including off-season training sessions, playing at the men’s intermediate level starting as a 16-year-old, learning from older players as well as being dedicated to his physical fitness (by) going to the gym,” Brown added.
Besides his offensive and defensive talents, Hopper also has moved ahead because of his attitude and approach.
“I’m very competitive. In the men’s league, I had to win every game,” he explained. “I brought the same attitude there that I had as if it was a provincial championship.”
In the games, he also likes to chirp a lot behind his catcher’s equipment to motivate his teammates and, maybe, distract the nearby hitter.
“I like to get the team rolling. It’s a lot more fun when you hit. I like to see the guys fired up and have fun,” Hopper said.
As Hopper continues his preparation for the World Cup, which also includes training at his student residence gym four or five times a week, he wants to make a good impression in his first true international opportunity.
“I like to think I can bring a good ounce of hitting. I want to show I have a decent stick and can change the flow of the game with a statement hit,” he enthused. “All of my training over the years has got me prepared for this tournament.”
Hopper also praised Brown for coaching him for 10 years at West Carleton Electric.
“The diamond was only a two-minute walk down the road and he’d be there coaching. He gave me the opportunity to play in the men’s league. He reminded me of tryouts and any opportunities. If I wanted to be somewhere, he gave me the opportunity. Definitely, a massive shout out to Adam Brown, who coached me since I was nine years old.”
Hopper thinks it was Brown who sort of volunteered him to be the team catcher in his first year. That was a learning experience as he had to handle the fast pitching of Gabe Brown, the son of the coach.
“As Gabe and I got better, we grew up and started to enjoy it. We were a scary deal. At the start, I was scared a few times, but everything normalized and I got used to it,” Hopper said about his catching journey.
As he continues to develop his “calling the game” skills, he gets excited when his “decent arm” allows him to make a quick pick-off play.
“There’s no better feeling when someone tries to steal (a base) and I throw them out by a couple of feet,” he said with pride.
You could almost hear him pound his catcher’s glove with great delight.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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