PALMER -- All the elements are there for the Juneau-Douglas High School baseball team to win the state championship.
The Crimson Bears are swift in the field, poised on the mound and deft in the batters box. Now, all there is left for the Bears to do is to put it all together, win two more games, and the title will be theirs.
Juneau starts off the Alaska State Baseball Championships against the Wasilla Warriors at 5 p.m. on Friday at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer. Win or lose, the Bears play at 10 a.m. Saturday against either the Lathrop Malemutes or the Service Cougars.
If Juneau beats Wasilla on Friday, they play the winner of the Lathrop-Service game for the state championship. Otherwise, the Bears play for third place against the Lathrop-Service loser.
Although its difficult to pick a clear-cut favorite in the championships, the Crimson Bears are the only team in the field with state championship experience. Last year, Juneau made it to the championship game, only to lose to East Anchorage 3-1 in the tourney's inaugural season.
Wasilla tied Homer for the Region III title and a coin toss determined who would play for the state championship. Service got its shot when Dimond, which beat out defending champ East, had to forfeit a game due to playing an ineligible player during the Region IV season.
Lathrop, with a 11-1 record and the Region VI title, is the only team in the tournament with a better record than the Bears and could be Juneau's biggest obstacle.
"We're the only one of the four teams that were in it last year," junior Dylan Hickey said. "I think we want it more than last year and its going to show."
Hickey, who is one of the leaders in almost every offensive and pitching categories for Juneau, is coming off an injury to his pitching arm. He was hit in the upper part of his right arm in a game in Juneau's homestand two weeks ago, but he was given a clean bill of health for this weekend.
The Crimson Bears compiled a respectable 12-2 record this season and won the Southeast Championship behind a threesome of excellent starting pitchers. Hickey, senior Will Nicholas and junior Brett Fairchild all pitched fantastic this year, posting 3-0 records each.
With three fine starters, it makes the manager's job difficult to decide who will pitch at the state tournament.
"Right now its still up in the air," Juneau's skipper Jim Ayers said. "We might go with Bruno (Del Olmo) to start Friday. He's got real good stuff and that will give us Dylan or Brett to close the game with a fresh Nicholas to start Saturday."
The hitting has come easy for the Bears, who have outscored their opponents by a 2-to-1 margin with a .338 batting average and a .429 on-base average. And when Juneau gets runners on base, the Bears' speed enables them to swipe bases almost at will while averaging nearly four stolen bases a game.
But according to Ayers, it's the defense that makes his team so tough. And Juneau's all-sophomore infield of Joe Ayers, Matt Freeman, Zach Kohan and Evan Scandling have been a big part of the defensive success.
"We have great defense," Jim Ayers said. "We've been hitting the ball and I think we will hit the ball, but our defense will win the tourney."
"It's tough playing for the championship in just two games," Dylan Hickey said. "Anything can happen and one play can change the game."
"I gotta like our chances," assistant coach Mark Hickey said. "Most of these guys played in the state tournament last year and it should help."
For the first time this season, the Crimson Bears will play on grass at Hermon Brothers Field where the fences are deep and the power alleys are wide open which should suit Juneau's speed well.
"It's nice to play on a real field," Nicholas said. "A lot of us take trips down south to play so it shouldn't bother us much. All we have to do is play our game and we'll be alright."
Jeff Kasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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