FAIRBANKS - The look on senior C.J. Keys' face said it all.
As the final out of the game was recorded, Keys - a second baseman-outfielder for the Juneau-Douglas High School baseball team - ripped off his batting helmet and dropped to his knees with a look of shock and disbelief.
The two-time defending state champion Crimson Bears wouldn't be playing for a three-peat Saturday after losing 5-4 to the eventual champ Kodiak Bears in Friday night's opening-round game at Growden Memorial Park, in a game the Crimson Bears led by three runs until the bottom of the sixth inning.
Instead of playing for a third title, the Crimson Bears had to beat West Valley 7-3 on Saturday afternoon to claim third place. Kodiak completed an undefeated season with a 3-2 victory in eight innings over the Chugiak Mustangs in Saturday's championship game.
"I thought we had it in the fourth inning," Keys said. "I don't know how many state championships we've won between high school and Little League, but this is one of the few times I've been on the wrong end."
"It's disappointing to know we won't be able to go back to back to back," senior shortstop Erik Scholl said. "We'd heard only three teams in the country had been able to win three straight state titles, and we wanted to be special."
The Crimson Bears (12-6 overall) had their chance to play for a third state championship, but they booted it away against Kodiak (17-0) with five errors that played a role in both innings when Kodiak scored.
Kodiak took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth inning when Jake Simpson reached on an error by Scholl, took second on a grounder to third and went to third when Juneau starting pitcher dropped a high pop-up to the left of the mound. With two outs and runners on first and third, Mixson tried to pick Ryan Norton off at first and his throw was wild, allowing Simpson to score an unearned run.
But Juneau responded with four runs in the top of the fifth inning. Sam Muse singled and took second on a sacrifice by Chris Dillon. Pat Kohan was hit by a pitch and took second on an error at short. Derek Listberger hit an infield single to load the bases with one out, then Keys hit a two-run double to give Juneau a 2-1 lead. The next hitter, senior center fielder-pitcher Sergio Magallanes, then dropped a perfect sacrifice bunt that scored Listberger and Keys to make it 4-1.
"It was just nice to get ahead," Muse said.
In the top of the sixth, the Crimson Bears had a chance to add to their lead, as Ryan Gorle reached on an error, stole second and then stole third with one out. But when Gorle stole third, the throw from catcher Justin Simpson hit Gorle, who was sliding headfirst into the back, in the left jaw. After a brief intermission for medical treatment, Gorle didn't score as the next two Juneau hitters flew out. A full day after the game Gorle's left jawbone was swollen the size of a baseball, and even had an imprint from the ball's stitches, but there were no broken bones or teeth.
"It doesn't hurt; it's just big," Gorle said late Friday night as he ate a postgame slice of pizza.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, things fell apart for Juneau and Mixson, who had a one-hitter entering the frame. Kodiak pitcher Mark Putney singled, then Jake Simpson singled and Doug Starrett walked to load the bases with no outs. Erich Simpson drove in two runs with a double to the right-centerfield fence.
"That was really rough, watching the ball go over your head like that," said Keys, who was playing second.
"We were a little down," Erich Simpson said about Juneau's big inning. "But we went back in the dugout and rallied the guys. I was just trying to put the ball in play and got a good pitch to hit. We were a little nervous playing the two-time state champions. We had to play tough. We'd rallied all year and we were waiting for our time."
Mixson got a strikeout for the first out of the inning, then Sean Costello attempted a sacrifice bunt that Mixson misplayed to allow Erich Simpson to score and Costello to reach second. Mixson got out of the inning when Matt Windnagle popped up to the pitcher and Mixson caught Costello off second base for the double-play. But the damage was done.
"There was definitely a momentum shift. I think we were too laid back when we were up 4-1," said Mixson, who struck out eight and allowed four hits. "This isn't supposed to happen, the two-time defending champs not making the title game. I feel bad for the seniors, and I wish I could have done something about it."
"I think it was more a momentum change than anything else," Scholl said. "We were up one inning hollering and cheering for each other. And the next inning, nothing."
In the top of the seventh inning, Keys singled with two outs. But Magallanes wasn't able to beat out a grounder to second and the game ended with Keys on his knees in disbelief on the baseline between second and third.
"I think you're a lot harder on yourself when you let it slip away like that," senior first baseman-pitcher Matt Greely said. "We have to play like that (the third-place game) is our championship, and not let one game sour our season."
In Saturday's third-place game, Greely was the winning pitcher and Magallanes earned the save in relief.
Juneau scored a run in the top of the first, but West Valley answered with two in the bottom of the inning as Chris Campanella hit an RBI double and a passed ball let him score. Juneau responded with a run in the top of the second, then took the lead for good with a run in the fourth and four more runs in the fifth. West Valley got a run on an error in the sixth, but that was all.
Mixson doubled for Juneau and Keys hit a triple. Magallanes earned player of the game honors for Juneau after going 3-for-5 with an RBI, while Chris Dillon had three RBIs on a single and two sacrifices. Keys, who joined Magallanes on the all-tournament team, and Muse scored two runs each.
"It was nice to end on a good note, especially since it's the last time in this uniform," Magallanes said. "When we got between the (base) lines, we just played our game and we showed some talent. It's something we've always done, come out and play baseball like we did today."
"We went out in good spirits," Scholl said. "We wanted to win, for sure. The other coaches were impressed with the way we were so up today."
Game linescores and more photos from the state tournament will run later this week.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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