FAIRBANKS - Early Saturday morning, the ship that is the Juneau-Douglas High School softball team was foundering and headed for the rocks.
Playing a 9 a.m. losers' bracket game against the Monroe Catholic School Rams, the Crimson Bears faced elimination as they trailed the Rams by two runs heading into their final three at bats.
Eight hours and four games later, the Crimson Bears were state champs after beating the previously undefeated and defending state champion Chugiak Mustangs 3-1 in the title game at Hez Ray Softball Complex.
On a day where temperatures reached the mid-80s, the Crimson Bears rallied to beat the Rams 4-2, then knocked off Service twice, 2-0 and 5-2, to reach the championship game. In the title game, when the sun finally ducked behind a cloud for the first time all weekend, Juneau made Chugiak pay dearly for a couple of errors to claim their third state championship, joining the 1999 and 2002 Crimson Bears.
"Now that all the adrenaline is gone, I think I'm going to be hurting," Juneau senior left fielder-third baseman Rachel Barril said. "We really wanted this."
"It's definitely a good way to go out," added outfielder Ashley Troutt, the team's only other senior who returned to the school after a year in Washington, D.C. "I'm glad I came back. This is the best team ever."
On Friday, seventh-seeded Juneau opened the tournament with a 15-0 victory over West Valley in a game called after three innings because of the 15-run mercy rule. The Crimson Bears then beat second-seeded East Anchorage 9-0. But Juneau closed out the day with a 3-2 loss to third-seeded Service after the Cougars capitalized on a couple of Juneau errors for two unearned runs.
The loss meant Juneau had to beat Service twice to advance to the championship game. This year, the state tournament format changed so there were two double-elimination brackets playing down to one championship game pitting the two bracket winners.
The Crimson Bears (23-5 overall, 21-1 in Alaska) - a surprisingly low seed - played a grueling seven games over two days in temperatures over 80 degrees. The four games Saturday came with no break longer than 30 minutes.
"I was sitting down every chance I got," junior second baseman Melissa White said. "Against Monroe this morning, I knew it was going to be a long day. My legs are dead. But I feel good."
"I'm OK now, but in the morning I'll be good and sore," said junior pitcher Ashley Larson, who got the last five outs of Juneau's victory over Monroe, then threw three complete games against Service and Chugiak. Before and after the Chugiak game, Larson applied liberal amounts of Tiger Balm to her pitching arm. She said she'd be using a lot of ice and ibuprofen Saturday night.
"It's my best friend," Larson said of the Tiger Balm, a hot ointment that soothes sore muscles.
Larson was one of three Juneau players to make the all-tournament team, joining junior third baseman Ilea Belcourt and junior shortstop-right fielder Jordan Johnston.
In the title game, Juneau was playing a Chugiak team that hadn't lost a game since the 2002 state tournament, a streak of 50 games that included a 7-1 victory over Juneau in last year's title game. The Mustangs (24-1 this season) were the obvious No. 1 seed for the tournament, but Juneau head coach Dave Massey had a reason for the length of Chugiak's streak.
"The only reason Chugiak was undefeated is we haven't played in Anchorage for two years," Massey said after beating the Mustangs. "And you can print that."
The Mustangs struck first, scoring a run in the bottom of the first inning when Courtney Waters singled on a bad hop over Johnston at short, took third on a sacrifice by Katelyn Leary, then scored on an errant catcher's pickoff throw to third.
But Juneau responded in the top of the second inning as Johnston's single to left scored Alycia Cox, who'd reached on an error, and White, whose sacrifice bunt attempt erased Hannah Barril at the plate before Johnston's big hit.
"I was actually a little scared," Johnston said. "But I just did my job and tried to put the ball in play."
Both teams had scoring opportunities as the game progressed, but neither team could get a runner home until Juneau tacked on an insurance run in the top of the seventh. With two outs, Powers reached on a strikeout-passed ball, took second on a wild pitch and scored on a single by Larson. In the bottom of the seventh, Larson set the Mustangs down in order with three grounders to the infield.
"That was huge. We needed an insurance run," Powers said.
When someone brought up the seventh seed, Johnston's reply was, "Not no more."
Saturday's third game
Juneau-Douglas 5, Service 2
Johnston led off the game with a single, took second on a sacrifice and scored two wild pitches later to give Juneau a 1-0 lead. But the Cougars tied the game in the bottom of the first when Service pitcher Heather Lyons singled with two outs, took second on an error and scored on a single by Whitney Sterling. The Cougars loaded the bases with a walk, but Larson struck out the next hitter to end the threat.
Juneau scored three runs in the second inning on three singles and an error, and added another run in the fourth when Rachel Barril's two-out single scored Powers. Larson cruised until the fifth inning, when she allowed her first baserunner since the first inning. Amber Lyons singled and later scored on an errant pick-off throw, but the Crimson Bear defense prevented any more damage.
Heather Lyons - like Larson - pitched complete games in the teams' three matchups. Sophomore Hannah Barril hit a ground-rule double for Juneau.
Saturday's second game
Juneau-Douglas 2, Service 0
Larson hit a two-run homer for the only runs of the game when Heather Lyons let one of her pitches on an intentional walk get too close to Larson's swing zone.
Larson singled in her first at bat, so the Cougars decided to walk her the next times she came to the plate. With two outs in the third inning and White on third after a single and error in left, the Cougars made their first attempt at the intentional-walk plan and Lyons' 3-0 count pitch was close enough for Larson to reach out and drive it over the center-field fence. The next two times Larson came to the plate, the pitches were much farther outside and well out of her reach.
Bavard and Johnston hit doubles in the game for Juneau.
Saturday's first game
Juneau-Douglas 4, Monroe Catholic 2
Freshman Andrea Doerflinger made her first varsity pitching start and took a one-hitter into the fifth inning when Monroe loaded the bases on a couple of bloop singles and a walk with one out. Larson relieved Doerflinger, and two wild pitches later Monroe had a 2-0 lead. Larson got out of the inning with a pair of strikeouts, and Juneau scored four runs in the top of the sixth inning to win the game, which ended after six innings because of the 90-minute time limit.
"I think I could have gone longer, but Ashley has a lot more experience than I do with the bases loaded," Doerflinger said. "Even though she let in those runs, I think you still have to go with her experience."
Rachel Barril started the game-winning rally with a one-out single. Nicole Bavard reached on an error, Belcourt hit a two-run double, Hannah Barril tripled Belcourt home and Torie Powers brought Barril home with a sacrifice bunt.
"I was kind of scared, but we pulled through," Belcourt said. "Now we're awake. We're all riled up and ready to play."
"That was big, everyone was feeling down after we gave up those runs," Rachel Barril said. "I was thinking these may be my last ups, so I just wanted to hit the ball. We're pumped for the next game. This gets us all pumped up."
Johnston also doubled in the game.
Juneau-Douglas 15, West Valley 0
Juneau-Douglas 9, East Anchorage 0
Service 3, Juneau-Douglas 2
Larson wasn't the only pitcher giving Juneau strong performances during the tournament. Hannah Barril was the winning pitcher in the first two games, although she split time with freshman Madison Massey and Larson, who suffered the hard-luck loss against Service.
Johnston and Hannah Barril, the smallest player on Juneau's team, both homered against West Valley. Barril also hit a triple and had four RBIs and three runs, while Belcourt and White hit ground-rule doubles.
Against East, Belcourt hit an RBI triple and scored twice, while Bavard, Johnston, Powers also scored twice and Hannah Barril and Larson had two RBIs each.
In the loss to Service, the Cougars scored twice and took a 3-1 lead on a pair of errors in the top of the seventh inning. But Larson hit a solo homer to lead off the bottom of the seventh that caused the Service center fielder to break through the plastic snowfence in the outfield. Juneau couldn't tie the score, even though Bavard singled and Belcourt flew out to deep center.
Alaina Mattingley of Sitka also made the all-tournament team. The Wolves posted a 1-2 record at the tournament - beating Colony 5-1 before losing 7-3 to Chugiak and 7-3 to Dimond - and won the team academic award with a 3.46 GPA.
A short story on Sitka's tournament, game linescores for both Southeast teams and more photos from the state softball tournament will run later this week.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.