The Juneau-Douglas High School baseball team will have experience in its favor when the two-time defending champion Crimson Bears open the state tournament today.
The Crimson Bears will be making their fifth straight appearance in the state tournament since it was sanctioned by the Alaska School Activities Association in 2000. None of the other three teams in the field has ever been to the state tournament.
The Crimson Bears are hoping that experience helps them in their quest for a third state title.
Juneau (11-5 overall) opens the tournament at 2 p.m. today against undefeated Kodiak (15-0) at Growden Memorial Park, while Chugiak (9-1) takes on West Valley (8-1) at 5 p.m. The championship game is at 2 p.m. on Saturday, with the third-place game at 11 a.m.
"That's an advantage," Juneau senior pitcher-first baseman Matt Greely said of the experience.
"It's something brand new. Usually it's the same teams," Juneau junior outfielder Ryan Gorle said. "Our experience will definitely be an edge out there. We've been there and done it."
The four teams in this year's state tournament haven't played outside their regions, so they have no common opponents. That means it's hard to compare Kodiak's undefeated record to Juneau's five losses, Juneau's worst season record in its five trips to state.
"We have to go out there and play our game. It's a whole new season," Juneau senior center fielder-pitcher Sergio Magallanes said. "We know we can play with anybody in the state. That experience will play a big role."
"I think we have a great chance," junior pitcher-first baseman Zach Mixson said about repeating. "We definitely have enough pitching to handle two games. You'll see our best. It's definitely a bigger advantage to know how to win in the big show."
Also, the season formats are different in the various regions. Chugiak and West Valley are within easy driving distance of their opponents, so they play several single games throughout the week. Kodiak and Juneau have to do more travel, so they bunch up several games into a long weekend series, which better tests pitching depth.
"We're excited," said sophomore third baseman-shortstop Tres Saldivar. "It'll be a new challenge. We're excited just to play and see how we do. We definitely came together and, when it comes to state, I think we're peaking."
"We definitely have a title to defend, and we hope to make it impossible for them to beat us," Mixson said. "If we can't make the 'ship (championship game) we'll be disappointed. We have a lot of pride and we want to show what we can do."
Kodiak is largely an unknown team to rest of the field. The Bears earned their spot in the state tournament with a 3-0 victory over Wasilla last Saturday, when sophomore left-handed pitcher Mark Putney (0.39 ERA) threw a two-hitter. Kodiak also features senior pitcher-shortstop Erich Simpson, who is 3-0 with a perfect 0.00 ERA.
In a story in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, Kodiak coach Rick Langfitt said he'll probably start Putney against Juneau and will save Simpson for Saturday's game.
Kodiak sports a couple of other members of the Simpson clan, including sophomore catcher Justin and junior outfielder-pitcher Jake. Jake Simpson was the team's leading hitter this season, but he aggravated a pelvic bone injury last week and may be limited to designated hitter and relief pitching duties and not play the outfield this weekend, Langfitt told the Daily Mirror.
While the Juneau baseball team had to deal with a delayed connecting flight in Anchorage that made the Crimson Bears 1 1/2 hours late arriving into Fairbanks on Thursday afternoon, that's nothing compared to Kodiak's trip north.
The Bears planned to fly to Anchorage, then rent a couple of vans to drive the 360 miles to Fairbanks. But Thursday afternoon, the Kodiak players were still en route to Anchorage because fog delayed their morning flight out of Kodiak Island. At last report, Kodiak was due to arrive shortly after midnight this morning, Juneau coach Jim Ayers said.
Chugiak and West Valley have both been off for two weeks as their regions wrapped up play a week before the Southeast and Southcentral regions.
But the Mustangs did play a game early this week as an American Legion team, edging Service. Chugiak features senior center fielder Craig Thibodeaux - Alaska's Gatorade Player of the Year - outfielder Brian Swicegood, catcher Keegan Kucko and pitcher Luke Sorensen.
West Valley is the only team besides Juneau to have played on Growden's funky dual-surface field, which has a hard Astroturf infield where balls run fast and skip low, and a natural grass outfield where balls tend to die before reaching the deep center-field fence and power alleys.
The Wolfpack are led by senior catcher Chris Campanella, senior pitcher-first baseman Gordon Dufseth (5-0 with three shutouts) senior shortstop Kyle Gillette, senior second baseman Gary Sanderson, senior third baseman Ryan Holz and senior first baseman Kyle Kinda.
West Valley also has a Juneau connection in assistant coach Joel Cladouhos, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Cladouhos was a pitcher-first baseman for the Crimson Bears when they won the first non-ASAA-sanctioned state invitational tournament in 1997, and later played baseball and basketball for Grinnell College of Iowa.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.