The baseball state tournament might be played in Palmer this weekend, but other teams will have to go through in-state undefeated Juneau-Douglas to get it.
The Bears (18-0) will take on Kodiak (8-5) at 4 p.m. in today's first round of the single-elimination state tournament, and the victor will play the winner of West Valley (11-5) and West Anchorage (8-3) on Friday at 4 p.m., with the championship game at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Palmer High School.
On the opposite side of the bracket, defending state champion Dimond (7-6) takes on Lathrop (9-3) at 1 p.m. Thursday, while Colony (6-1) will face Sitka (record not reported) at 7 p.m.
JDHS manager Steve Bavard said Kodiak is a virtual unknown at this point.
"I was surprised because I thought we were going to play Wasilla and then all of a sudden, Kodiak snuck in," he said. "I know absolutely nothing about Kodiak."
But knowing little about your opponents is a relatively common trend in Alaska, where distances between schools are great and the weather and shortened schedules don't always allow you to play -r scout - everybody each season.
Bavard said it makes no difference to the Bears who they play, because there is only one thing on their agenda -inning three more games.
"They're focused and they're fired up. They want to win state," Bavard said. "That's been their goal from day one. We asked before the season, 'What is your goal? Is your goal to compete real well and move on to college to play baseball?' 'They all said, 'No, we want to win state first before we do that.'
"This is important business for these guys. This is unfinished business from last year."
After bringing home the state hardware in 2008, JDHS fell flat in last year's region tournament and was not able to defend its title.
"I don't know what happened last year," said Bavard, who is in his first year as manager. "It was kind of a fluke. They didn't hit when they needed to hit, which, in baseball, can happen.
"Hopefully, we can hit when we need to this year."
Junior lefty Damon Ludwig and senior first baseman Keath Flint each spoke of revenge and the disappointment of not making last year's tournament as driving forces.
"It's definitely giving us a lot motivation. We want to do it for ourselves and the guys that didn't get to go when they were seniors last year," Flint said. "It's definitely given us a big push to go all the way.
"We just need to hit. That's what keeps us in all the games," he continued. "It doesn't really matter who pitches against us as long as our sticks are alive."
Taking the hill against Kodiak in the opener will be the big lefty, Ludwig, with senior right-handers Aaron Cohen going Friday and Dylan Baker pitching the championship game if JDHS can advance. As a staff, the Bears' ERA is a sparkling 3.30.
"I just want to go in and have good control of my stuff and have a good start for my team," Ludwig said of his Game 1 start. "I want to get us the win that first day."
"They're throwing well," Bavard said of his rotation. "We have good pitching. Baker and Cohen, if they can put a game together, I think it will be hard to beat them. Ludwig, people have a hard time hitting that soft lefty stuff."
The team is hitting better than .300 as a whole, averaging about eight runs per game -hough that number is skewed a bit with a couple of monster outings against first-year Thunder Mountain - with 37 home runs and 191 RBIs.
Bavard and Flint each said Dimond and Sitka are both viable threats to win, but the Bears have beaten both teams this year, including six wins against the Southeast rival Wolves, though the last two wins came in dramatic walkoff fashion. Senior left fielder Alex DeRocher supplied both game-winning hits against Sitka, one a two-run homer and the other a single.
"We haven't dominated them by any means," Bavard said of Sitka. "They're a very competitive team, they have a really good coach and they work hard."
"We should be able to get through our first two games but we can't look past anybody," Flint added. "We're just going to keep our heads down and try to make it all the way."
As if JDHS needed any more motivation, finishing the in-state season undefeated would be the cherry on top.
"These guys have worked hard, even the guys who aren't the in limelight," Bavard said. "They go through practice day in, day out and they're hitting the ball, so it's not just the starters that are working hard. The whole team is working hard for this, so it's not just the Baker-Cohen show. We don't have an easy out in our lineup and that's what gets us through close games.
"Wouldn't that be wonderful?" Bavard said of sending his seniors off with another championship and a 21-0 in-state record. "That would be sweet."
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