PALMER -- Juneau-Douglas High School coach Jim Ayers delivered a commencement speech of his own to the 10 seniors he was saying good-bye to after this weekend's state baseball championships.
Sitting around the Gold Miner's Hotel in downtown Palmer Friday night, Ayers told his players they were in a no-lose situation when they took the field on Saturday. The Crimson Bears routed North Pole High earlier on Friday 11-3, and were one game away from being state champions.
``The worst thing that can happen to you guys is that you are going to go home second in the state, and graduate today,'' Ayers told his squad.
Ayers words came to pass Saturday morning at Hermon Brothers Field, as Juneau-Douglas lost 3-1 to East Anchorage High School in the inaugural Alaska School Activities Association state baseball championship. North Pole beat Colony 10-3 in the third-place game Saturday afternoon.
Garrett Schoenberger and Dylan Hickey were the only two Juneau players named to the nine-player all-tournament team (East had four players on the team, Juneau and North Pole two each and Colony one), while Brian Kostenko and Jesse Blackwell were named to the good-sport team. Juneau also won both the team academic and team sportsmanship awards.
The loss for the senior-dominated Crimson Bears, who finished the season with a 12-4 record, was even more sobering because they were dominating, and led 1-0 entering the sixth inning.
Junior pitcher Will Nicholas completely baffled the Thunderbirds (12-1) for the first five innings, striking out 11 of the 18 batters he faced through five innings, and allowing just one runner to reach third base. Nicholas, in fact, was so dominant that he struck out the side in the first two innings, nicely mixing his curve ball and change-up with an 85-mile per hour fastball.
Nicholas' teammates gave the Crimson Bears a 1-0 lead in the third, and could have had more. Joe Ayers lined a one-out single up the middle, then stole second and third base. After Dylan Hickey flew out to left field for the second out, catcher Garrett Schoenberger walked to put runners at the corners.
East hurler Mike Moran, who was nearly pulled in the first inning after loading the bases, then gave up a bloop double to right to outfielder Grady Treston. Schoenberger broke with the hit, but was gunned down at the plate trying to score from first on a perfect throw from East right fielder Travis Babcock.
In the sixth, Nicholas gave up a single to leadoff hitter Chris Jones, then got Rodney Zigarlick to fly to center for the first out. However, a walk to Jeremy Wiley and a bloop single by clean-up hitter Todd Hadley loaded the bases, and sent Nicholas to the dugout.
``I wouldn't say I was relieved when he got pulled,'' said East coach Tony Wylie of Nicholas departure from the game, ``because I didn't know what the next kid was doing. I was more relieved when we loaded the bases.''
Senior lefthander Kent Mearig had been warming in the Crimson Bears bullpen, and Ayers brought him in to face Babcock, who had struck out in his two previous at bats. Babcock worked the count full, then laced a single to right, scoring Jones and Wiley.
Mearig then got Moran to pop to short for the second out. With runners at the corners and two outs, Babcock broke for second, causing Mearig to take his foot off the rubber - a balk - which allowed Hadley to walk home from third for a 3-1 lead.
``I just got tired,'' a dejected and quiet Nicholas said of his rocky start in the sixth. ``I felt I had my good stuff today, and I was on. But you can't hold them off forever. They are good hitters and they just got to me. That team over there is a great ballclub. I think we're better, but ... I guess it just shows that on any given day, any team can win.''
Juneau-Douglas had the tying run at the plate in the top of the seventh after a one-out single by pinch hitter Brett Fairchild, but Moran fanned Brian Heimbigner and Joe Ayers to close out the Thunderbirds' first state championship.
``It's kind of tough when you are out there and the opposing pitcher is shutting down your team offensively,'' Moran said of his counterpart's performance.
Moran, who hurled a complete game and struck out six in his win, said ``I gotta give it up to that guy (Nicholas). He did a great job. He hit his spots for six innings, and then he started to get a little bit tired''
As Wylie and the Thunderbirds celebrated their win, the Juneau dugout was silent as players pondered how the championship had slipped away. Heads were hung, caps were down and Nicholas' amazing performance was history.
``They played really well,'' Wylie said as he watched the Bears hustle onto two vans to make it to the airport. ``I can't say enough good things about their team. (Nicholas) was making a lot of us look silly.''
Ayers allowed his team a few minutes to reflect on the tough loss, then reminded them that the vans were loading to take the seniors to the airport for graduation.
``Everybody did a great job,'' Ayers said. ``East is a good club. We had a great season. I've been around baseball for a long, long time, and these are the best bunch of guys I've ever been around. It's been incredible.''
FRIDAY SEMIFINAL RE-CAP Senior righthander Casey Walker fanned 11, pitching a four-hitter as the Crimson Bears drubbed North Pole 11-3 in Friday afternoon's opening round semifinal game of the state tournament.
Juneau-Douglas used a well-balanced hitting attack to open up a 6-0 lead after two innings. Dylan Hickey finished 3-for-4, scoring two runs and adding an RBI, and catcher Garrett Schoenberger added three RBIs in the win.
In the nightcap, East blanked tournament host Colony 8-0 behind Travis Babcock's pitching gem. Babcock hurled a three-hitter and finished with 10 strikeouts and no walks. He faced just four batters over the seven-inning minimum and also drilled a single to help his own cause.
Colony (9-5) was plagued by poor defense, and committed five errors.
CRIMSON BEARS 11
Friday's semifinal game from Palmer
Juneau-Douglas - Walker and Schoenberger. North Pole - Hanson and Earls. W - Walker. L - Hanson. Sv - None. 2B - Juneau: Fairchild; North Pole: Martin. 3B - Juneau: None; North Pole: Eddy. HR - None.
CRIMSON BEARS 1
Saturday's championship game from Palmer
Juneau-Douglas - Nicholas, Mearig (6) and Schoenberger. East Anchorage - Moran and Hadley. W - Moran. L - Nicholas. Sv - None. 2B - Juneau-Douglas: Treston; East Anchorage: None. 3B - None. HR - None.