Sam Dempster has called it a career – and what a storybook ending his Durham Lords authored in the end.
After 28 seasons – and more than 400 wins coaching the Durham baseball team – Dempster has left as a champion, guiding the Lords to a Canadian crown.
Durham’s dream season didn’t begin with championship-calibre play.
The team started this season losing six of its first eight games. They went on to win 10 straight to get into the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association Baseball Championship, which was held at Kinsmen Stadium in Oshawa, Oct. 18-19.
The team did well at the tournament but fell short in the final to the Humber Hawks, earning the Lords a silver medal. That second place finish also helped them qualify for the National College Baseball Championship, held at Humber, Oct. 24-26.
En route to the national final, Durham avenged it loss to Humber, beating the Hawks in the semifinals 5-2.
“It was the icing on the cake,” said Dempster.
They were on to the final and the Lords eked out a 2-1 extra-inning decision over Thompson Rivers University, to claim their first national championship since 2011.
“It’s a storybook ending, that’s all you can say, just close the book and put it on the shelf,” said Dempster.
Dempster has been at the helm of Durham’s baseball program since its inaugural season in 1992 when the players took to the field wearing basketball T-shirts and baseball pants.
He got into coaching when his son Colin Dempster was playing and he wanted to coach him.
“I got the bug for it,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t find your niche in life till later.”
Dempster has made many friendships and relationships with staff, players and alumni during his time as a coach, including one with DC athletic director Ken Babcock.
Babcock had already built a relationship with Dempster and knew he was the guy for the baseball program.
“He’s the guy we wanted, we wanted the best coach available,” said Babcock. All it took to get him to agree was a “burger”, said Babcock.
Babcock and Dempster often have morning meetings at the athletic office. The two speak about how the team is doing and Dempster checks in with Babcock on how his players are keeping up with schoolwork.
Dempster makes sure his players know school is first and that they need to focus on their studies.
One of his former players, Rob Leth, knows Dempster is focused on academics as much as athletics. Leth felt bored with school leading to him often skipping classes.
“I would skip school with two of my buddies and we would just play baseball,” said Leth, who played at DC in the mid-1990s and actually played for Dempster prior to arriving at Durham when both were at Eastdale Collegiate in Oshawa.
Leth admits he missed some high school classes as well and credits Dempster with confronting him on it, telling the student, “look if you want to play baseball you have to go to class.”
That moment “turned my life around.” Leth said. It made him realize he had to focus on school and he had to go to class.
“It wasn’t just baseball with him it’s like he actually felt like a father figure to me,” said Leth.
Leth and Eastdale – under Dempster’s leadership – went on to win the 1994 Ontario high school championship at the Rogers Centre.
“It was the greatest baseball highlight of my life,” said Leth.
Leth and several Lords’ alumni were at the last home game of the season to honour their former coach.
Dempster is done with the Lords, but said “I’m not done with baseball.” He is running hitting clinics starting in November and still plans to be around the school.
Dempster also plans to spend a lot more time with his family and wants to learn how to play the guitar – something he did when he was 16 but now wants to revisit.
He will still be around the school and the team at times to talk with friends like Babcock.
“We’re going to miss him, I’m going to miss him, and the program is going to miss him,” said Babcock.
There’s no word who will replace Dempster next season, but the legendary coach said, “it’s got to be a fresh start for somebody, let them put their stamp on the team.”