Juneau-Douglas is back in the state baseball tournament, but that might not be the case if it weren’t for the return of the Crimson Bears’ Big Dog.
Senior Damon Ludwig, or “Big Dog” to his teammates, battled illness and ineligibility, working his way back onto the team for one last run with his classmates at another state title.
For much of the season it was unclear — maybe even unlikely — if he would get the chance to play.
“I wasn’t able to attend class very much because I was sick,” Ludwig explained. “Later on in the school year, I was able to attend class and get my grades back in order, and I was able to join the team.”
Juneau-Douglas manager Sheldon Winters spoke with his players about holding one of their 16 roster spots for Ludwig, but he said things looked bleak for a while.
“It’s more than just about filling that spot. These guys have been playing together since Little League and T-Ball, and they really wanted to get him back on the team,” Winters said. “As the season progressed, we were getting more and more skeptical that he was going to make it back.
“Frankly, we had almost written him off,” he continued. “But every week he’d show up and say, ‘Coach, I’m going to make it. I’m going to do it.’ Ultimately, he did right before we went to Sitka. He’s glad he did, we’re glad he did, and the rest is history.”
That history includes Ludwig earning the right to
graduate on time and walk with his class, an opportunity he didn’t think he’d have. To get back on track, he had to drop a couple of courses and he began taking correspondence classes.
“It was pretty difficult, but I was able to overcome it,” he said. “I was hoping I would be able to get back on the team because all I wanted to do my senior year was play baseball.
“It was tough, and the games were really hard to watch because I wanted to play.”
Ludwig called walking with his class “one of the best moments” of his life.
“It was just amazing. About halfway through the year, I didn’t think I would graduate on time,” he said. “When they told me I could walk with my class, it was awesome. (My parents) were really happy that I was able to graduate.”
Graduating on time also meant he could rejoin the Bears. He said he is incredibly grateful Winters held his spot on the roster for him, and he made his season debut in Sitka two weeks ago.
“All I wanted to do was play ball, and it was great,” he said. “I think (my teammates) were happy about it. They knew I could help the team out a lot, so I think they were glad I was able to play.”
He pitched an inning in Sitka and took over the designated hitter role. Although a little rusty, he said he wasn’t nervous about getting back on the field.
“Not really,” he said. “It’s like riding a bicycle. It took a little bit for me to get hot but once I did, it’s been pretty good. It was amazing (to be back out there). No joke, it was one of the happiest moments of my life — again.”
Then came the Region V Baseball Tournament last weekend at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park. With a state bid on the line in the morning game against Ketchikan, Juneau-Douglas found itself in an early 5-0 hole.
Ludwig stepped to the plate with two outs in the third inning and belted a three-run homer to push the Bears ahead 6-5. JDHS went on to win 19-9, earning the right to defend its state championship.
But that was just the appetizer before two main-course classics.
With Sitka undefeated in the double-elimination tourney, JDHS had to take the next two games from the Wolves to repeat as region champs. The Crimson Bears scored six runs in the final two innings of the first game to rally, with Ludwig providing a monster two-run homer in the sixth inning to bring Juneau-Douglas within a run.
The Bears went on to win 8-7, with Ludwig getting walked intentionally as JDHS scored four runs in the top of the seventh.
In the final game with the region championship on the line again, Ludwig hit his third homer of the day, a solo shot to tie things up at 10-10 in the bottom of the seventh. The Bears went on to win 11-10 in a wild affair, with a celebratory dog pile at the plate as the hometown fans went crazy.
“I really enjoyed helping my team win,” he said. “That’s what you want to do is win regions and get a good seed for state. We were pretty worried when we were down 5-0 that first game, but we came through. We knew that we could. It was just awesome.”
Now, with all of the eligibility issues behind him, Big Dog and the Bears want to add a second straight state title to their resumes, and third in four years.
“We hope to come away with the championship, just like every year. But especially this year,” he said. “With all the seniors that have been playing on the team since freshman year, it would be really nice to get one final (championship) before we left.”
Whether JDHS wins another state title or not, Ludwig’s return has been a tremendous boost to the team. And he has a lot to be proud of with what he’s had to overcome.
“His impact has been huge, even if he didn’t play a minute,” Winters said. “He’s been around so long, and he’s really solid in the dugout. The kids look up to him and he’s a really quiet leader. He solidifies and calms the team down, so it was great just to have him back for that reason.
“He adds a lot to our offense, but just his presence has meant a lot.”