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After giving up three runs to the Sitka High School Wolves in the top half of the first inning, the Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears tried until their last at-bat to claw their way back into the Alaska School Activities Association State Baseball Championship on Friday night at Growden Park in Fairbanks.
But Sitka secured its third straight state title by a final score of 6-2, and JDHS was forced to settle for the runner-up spot.
It was the Bears' first trip back to the title since 2003. Though the Bears matched the Wolves hit for hit, seven for each team, it was a lack of timely hitting that derailed the JDHS team's hopes for a championship.
The JDHS team loaded the bases in the first, third and fifth innings, but only were able to score one run in the third and one in the fifth.
Sitka hurler Bryn Calhoun used his pounding fastball and a big, breaking curve to pitch his way out of the three big jams.
JDHS head coach Jim Ayers pointed the finger at himself for the team's first inning pitching woes, as starter Andrew Hall, the winning pitcher in Thursday's opening round game against Homer, came out flat. Hall gave up a leadoff single and two walks in a third of an inning before Clae Baker came in from center field to relieve.
"The plan was to use Hall for just four innings in the first game on Thursday," Ayers said.
But Hall pitched through six innings that day, striking out 13 and ensuring the first-round win.
"He had to use up too much two days ago," Ayers said. "And that's my fault."
But that's the reality of the eight-team single elimination format of the state tournament. Every game is a must-win, and every team with a shot at the title needs to trot out an ace pitcher from its stable for each start.
The Bears' Baker was the winning pitcher in his team's Friday afternoon 10-0 shutout of North Pole High School. He threw a no hitter and a near-perfect game, issuing just a single walk, but Baker's workday lasted just 5 innings because the 10-run lead rule was in effect. He threw only 72 pitches, so had plenty left in the tank on Saturday.
But before he could get back in the groove, Baker gave up a three-run triple to designated hitter Ross Venneberg. Then he settled down to retire the side in the first. He pitched two more innings, allowing just one more hit and one more run.
"By the time Baker got to the mound in the first inning, the bases were loaded," Ayers said. "And that guy just hit a ball that burned the center fielder."
Joe Kohan came on to pitch in the fourth, and finished out the game, notching eight strikeouts in three innings of work. He allowed two runs on three hits - all in the sixth inning.
Shortstop Shawn Ibesate came up big for the Bears both offensively and defensively in the championship game and throughout the tournament. He and Baker were both named to the All-Tournament Team, while Ryan Beason and George Damian were named the Outstanding Sportsmen from the JDHS squad.
In the championship game, Ibesate went two-for-three at the plate, with a single and a double. He scored both of the Bears' runs, and he also got on base in the first inning. That set the table for the first loaded-base opportunity, when he was hit by a pitch.
"We came in pretty confident," Ibesate said. The confidence was built on their success against Sitka during the regular season, he added.
"But I guess being confident doesn't always work," he said. "It's very tough losing this title."
Catcher Natan Jacobsen and Hall, who moved to center field when Baker came in to pitch, also had solid nights at the plate. Each went two-for-four with a pair of singles, while Jacobsen added a stolen base.
Right fielder Aaron Cohen got the last JDHS hit of the game, as he clocked a double with two outs in the seventh. Cohen had to come out of Friday's game after he rolled his ankle on the turf making the turn at second base.
When asked if he'd be able to play in the championship game, Cohen answered "I wouldn't miss that game for the world."
Win or lose, his teammates and coaches felt the same way.