Three years ago, the Juneau-Douglas High School baseball team won the state invitational. But the Crimson Bears felt like it was an empty victory because no teams from Anchorage or Fairbanks competed in the tournament.
This weekend the Crimson Bears head back to Palmer's Hermon Brothers Field, and if they win there won't be that same empty feeling. Finally there's an official state tournament and all of Alaska's large school regions will be represented.
``We'll be playing the best teams in the state, not just the Mat-Su Valley,'' Juneau junior pitcher Will Nicholas said.
``We've always been kind of bummed because there weren't any teams from Anchorage or Fairbanks,'' said senior pitcher Kent Mearig, who is making his third trip to Palmer for either the state invitational or state. ``It made us feel like something was missing.''
Juneau (11-3 this season) will open the four-team, single-elimination tournament at 2 p.m. Friday against North Pole (10-2), with tournament host Colony (9-4) playing East Anchorage (10-1) at 5 p.m. in the other first-round game.
The tournament concludes on Saturday when, win or lose, Juneau plays at 9 a.m. against the corresponding team from the East-Colony match-up in what will be either the championship or consolation game. North Pole plays its corresponding team at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Both Juneau games will be broadcast live on KINY 800-AM, which will be picking up a feed from the Alaska Sports Broadcasting Network.
Juneau is playing in the early game on Saturday because the Crimson Bears plan to play a game of beat the clock in the afternoon. Juneau has 10 seniors on its roster, and those players need to catch a 2 p.m. flight back to Juneau so they can graduate later on Saturday afternoon. The graduation ceremony starts at 3 p.m., but Juneau's plane doesn't arrive until 3:50.
With a game of beat the clock in progress, Juneau will have to avoid its recent tendency of waiting until the later innings to pull out come-from-behind victories. The Crimson Bears have won nine of their past 10 games, and in half of those Juneau trailed after the fourth inning.
``We showed Southeast what we can do, especially Ketchikan which is our rival,'' Juneau junior Jesse Blackwell said. ``If we just play our game we can win. It's been nice to see us come from behind a lot, but we need to win that first game.''
The Crimson Bears don't know much about North Pole, other than a few tidbits gleaned from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner's Internet site. Juneau coach Jim Ayers said North Pole likes to run, and it's got a pitcher named Kevin Hanson who throws a nice fast ball and a pitch called the slurve (a combination curve and slider). Ayers said North Pole trailed Delta Junction and West Valley before pulling out victories late in the season.
``I feel real good about our chances,'' Ayers said. ``These guys can play ball with anybody their age, when they're focused. They play with sound fundamentals. As the season went along, we've gotten stronger fundamentally and our pitching has improved. Casey (Walker), Kent (Mearig) and Will (Nicholas) have really come through for us, and Evan Tromble and Dylan Hickey are right behind. That gives us five good pitchers.''
The two-game weekend may hurt Juneau, which is used to playing five games in three days. But Ayers said the Crimson Bears will find a way to manage, even though the team preferred a round-robin tournament with more games.
``We're just happy we're going to the show,'' Ayers said. ``It's a two-game series, and we've got to adjust. We've got some strength on our bench, and we've got to find a way to use that.''
``I wish it were double-elimination, because we've got deep pitching,'' Nicholas said. ``We'll definitely be blue collar.''