Though the baseball season is over for Liam Rihela and his Thompson River University Wolfpack teammates after a semifinal playoff loss Saturday to the University of the Fraser Valley Cascades, the White Rock native has plenty worth celebrating when looking back on the season that was.
Last week, the Semiahmoo Peninsula native – and former White Rock Tritons infielder – was named to a Canadian College Baseball Conference first-team all-star after a regular season that saw him hit .349 with 14 doubles, three home runs and 20 runs-batted-in in 28 games.
— TRU WolfPack 🐺 (@GoTRUWolfPack) May 9, 2019
On defence, he was equally valuable, moving around the diamond and ably filling in wherever he was needed. Listed as an infielder, he played third base, shortstop, second base, and even some outfield, he told Peace Arch News.
Not bad for a guy who, a few years ago, thought his playing career was done.
Two years ago, Rihela, then 20, packed away his glove after a few seasons spent bouncing around the U.S. college baseball scene. After a stint at NCAA Div. 3 Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas – where he was part of a team that won a Div. 3 College World Series title – Rihela transferred to Merced Junior College in California. But after just one season there, with his love weakened for the game he’d played since T-ball, he decided to call it quits and come home.
“I was just a little worn out, and I kind of needed a fresh start,” he explained, adding that as much as he enjoyed his World Series win in Texas, his playing time there was limited, in part due to injury.
“Winning the World Series was awesome – definitely at the top of my list of accomplishments, and just an amazing experience, but …(college baseball) still wasn’t quite what I expected, I guess. I went down there with maybe too many expectations about what it might be, so I just decided at that point to take a step back.”
“Coaching was fun, and it was to give back and help the kids out. A lot of them, I’d played with their older brothers. So it was cool to see them grow,” he said.
It was while coaching that bantam squad at the prestigious Best of the West tournament in Kamloops that the seed was planted in his head about a return to the field himself. While in Kamloops, Rihela bumped into Ray Chadwick, the head coach of TRU’s baseball team. The two had a prior relationship – Chadwick had tried to recruit the young ballplayer out of high school, before he ultimately chose the U.S. route.
“He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I told him I was up there coaching,” Rihela explained. “And he said, ‘No, you shouldn’t be coaching. You’re too young to be coaching. You need to come up here and play.’
“I didn’t really think about it much at all. I just kind of said, ‘Yeah, sure. OK.’ I’d kind of moved on, and in my head I thought that coaching was going to be my new thing, as tough as it was (to give up playing). I knew there’d be a time where I would miss it, but I was committed to coaching.
“But then right at the end of that bantam season, it kind of hit me and I thought maybe I should come back.”
Rihela enrolled at TRU in time for the following season, and is now two years into his comeback.
Whether its age and maturity, or simply being in a different environment – or perhaps a combination of both – Rihela admitted that his time with his new team has re-invigorated him.
“We have a good group of guys up here, and we’re just having a lot of fun. That might’ve been one of the reasons I took that year off. It just wasn’t fun for me anymore,” he said.
“Maybe there was too much pressure, or it was the injuries, or playing time, I’m not sure. But I’m more relaxed now, and I think that’s really helped my game. I’ve learned to control what you can control, and not worry about the stuff you can’t.
“I’m just having fun out there again.”
He still has two years of playing eligibility left, and hopes to extend his playing career even beyond that – to the pro ranks or independent leagues.
“That’s definitely the goal – that’s been the goal since I started playing. I want to play as long as I can.”