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PALMER -- The Crimson Bears had been close before -- close enough to touch, feel and taste a state title -- but in two prior chances, they came up just short.
On its third try, the Juneau-Douglas High School baseball claimed its first-ever state baseball title with a 9-3 victory over the Lathrop Malemutes on Saturday at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer.
Since the inception of the ASAA/First National Bank State High School Baseball Championships two years ago, Juneau has qualified for the tournament field every year, finishing second in 2000 and fourth last season.
"The third time's the charm," Crimson Bears head coach Jim Ayers said. "I always believed in these guys and they finally started to believe in themselves. They just came up here to play baseball."
"We just came to play," a beaming Joe Ayers said after the win, "It's awesome -- we've been working for this forever."
The Bears reached the championship game by edging the East Anchorage Thunderbirds 5-4 on Friday while Lathrop advanced by clobbering the Homer Mariners 9-1. In Saturday's third-place game, East defeated Homer 2-1.
However, in the Malemutes' win on Friday, they suffered a setback when their star pitcher, Ryan Shaver, was ejected for arguing balls and strikes with the home-plate umpire. According to ASAA rules, any player who is ejected must sit out the next game -- which turned out to be the state title game against Juneau, where he was slated to pitch.
So the Malemutes were forced to put lefty Brandon Lee on the mound, but Jim Ayers said that he didn't think Shaver's absence was a big factor in the outcome of the game and noted that Juneau had to deal with problems of its own.
"No, I don't think it mattered," Ayers said. "They put a guy out there who could throw the ball. We went through a lot of adversity to get here. Dylan (Hickey) and Joe (Ayers) have been injured and we weren't sure who was going to be behind the plate this year."
Fortunately for the Bears, Hickey and Ayers were able to play -- and they played well. Both players, along with Nick Wolf, were selected to the All-Tournament team for their stellar play. Hickey, one of most dominant pitchers in the state last year, was only able to pitch one game this year due to a nagging shoulder injury and Ayers took a bad hop to his eye in practice on Monday.
Hickey was named the Phillips 66 Player of the Game for his efforts in Friday's win, and Ayers was given the award on Saturday. Hickey was 4-for-7 with a double, two RBI's, three stolen bases, three runs, and a sacrifice for the tournament while Ayers was 2-for-4 with a double, three walks, three stolen bases, and four runs from the lead-off spot. Wolf was 4-for-5 with a double, two stolen bases and was hit by a pitch in the tourney.
After some delays due to rainy weather, Lathrop got on the scoreboard first with two runs in the top of the first inning on a passed ball and a wild pitch from Juneau starting pitcher Brett Fairchild. He would settle down to pitch three quality innings, giving up just those two runs on four hits and striking out two to earn the win. Fairchild and relief pitcher Greg Smith were given the Sportsmanship Awards for the team.
"I couldn't find my breaking ball in the first," Fairchild said, who completed a fabulous high school sporting career with his victory. "I could have done better personally. ... I'm just happy for the team."
The Crimson Bears wasted little time in regaining the lead, with three runs in their half of the first inning and two more in the second. From there the Bears never looked back, as Lathrop was unable to get anything going outside a single run in the sixth inning.
Smith, who pitched three solid innings the day before, gave up the run in his two and a third innings of relief work. He finished the tourney with six strikeouts and was Juneau's most effective pitcher and got the win on Friday. Evan Scandling took the mound to close the game and retired the final five Malemute batters in order to seal the title.
Lee was tagged for six runs over four innings and walked six and was relieved by Stephan Sele who gave up three runs in two innings for Lathrop. The Malemutes were also hit with another ejection when assistant coach Jerry Johnson was booted in the first inning for arguing with the umpires.
Juneau finished its state championship season with a 17-3 overall record, including five pre-season games in Arizona and two post-season games.
"We worked hard for 20 games counting our games in Arizona and it paid off," Smith said.
"It's just been so much fun," Jim Ayers said after receiving the traditional douse from the Gatorade cooler. "This is one of the top five things that has ever happened to me in my life ... it was great."
One scary moment came after the completion of the first inning when home-plate umpire went down on one knee with back spasms. After a lengthy delay, the umpire was taken away in an ambulance and play resumed short one ump.
In Friday's semifinal game against the Thunderbirds, Hickey scored the eventual game-winning run when he stole home in the fifth inning.
The bases were loaded with Fairchild on second, Corso on first and Smith batting with a 2-2 count and one out when Hickey surprised everyone by bolting home. East catcher Chris Tuck barely got the pitch from Corey Madden in his mitt when Hickey slid feet-first in front of him.
"Me and Dylan were making eye contact," Ayers said. "I keep a stopwatch with me and if the pitcher takes more than 3.5 seconds to make his delivery, I'll give him and Joe (Ayers) the green light to steal because they're fast enough to do it."
"I was surprised -- I wasn't expecting that," East head coach Tony Wylie said. "They did a good job of picking up our signals."
Hickey finished the game 2-for-4 with a double while Nick Wolf, batting in the ninth spot, was 3-for-3 with a double and a stolen base.
Zach Kohan had a shaky start, giving up three runs on five hits before being relieved by Smith. Kalen Meek took the mound to close the game where he struck out Madden and got the second out when Grant Bledsoe lined out to a diving Corso in right field.
Things would get interesting when Meek walked the bases loaded. He then walked a run home to make it 5-4, but eventually earned the save by forcing Brant Jensen to ground out the Ayers who flipped it to C.J. Keys to end the game.
Jeff Kasper is a freelance writer and a former Empire sports reporter.
CRIMSON BEARS 5, THUNDERBIRDS 4
Friday's semifinal game from Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer
EAST 111 000 1 -- 4 8 2
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS 002 120 X -- 5 6 0
East -- Madden, Sherwood (6) and Tuck. Juneau-Douglas -- Kohan, Smith (4), Meek (7) and Cadiente. WP -- Smith. LP -- Madden. Sv -- Meek. 2B -- Juneau-Douglas 2 (Hickey).
CRIMSON BEARS 9, MALEMUTES 3
Saturday's championship game from Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer
LATHROP 200 001 0 -- 3 6 1
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS 320 021 X -- 9 8 2
East -- Lee, Sele (5) and Tuck. Juneau-Douglas -- Fairchild, Smith (4), Scandling (6) and Cadiente. WP -- Fairchild. LP -- Lee. 2B -- Juneau-Douglas 1 (Ayers). Lathrop 2 (Bloom, Pakrivnak).