A pair of overpowering pitchers and experience in previous state tournaments helped Juneau's Gastineau Channel Little League All-Stars get off to a big start in the opening game of the Alaska State Senior Division (Age 15-16) Little League Softball Tournament.
Ashley Larson struck out eight hitters and allowed one hit through the first four innings, then reliever Alicia Maryott struck out five hitters and allowed two hits over the last three frames as Juneau claimed an 8-0 victory over Kenai on Sunday at Melvin Park.
The victory opened Juneau's defense of last year's state title, and gave the GCLL All-Stars a 1-0 lead in the best-two-of-three championship series. Juneau can repeat as state champion when the teams play again at 6 p.m. tonight, with an if-necessary game on Tuesday in case Kenai wins tonight. The winner advances to next week's Western Division tournament in Vancouver, Wash.
"A few times I threw my rise ball and my changeup, but it was pretty much all fastballs," said Larson, who faced just 12 hitters and only allowed a fourth-inning bloop single to Kenai's Britney Baier (who was later caught stealing).
Juneau brought in Maryott in the fifth inning, and she kept up the pressure even though she admitted to some jitters. By limiting Larson to four innings on Sunday, she can be used again today, if needed; a fifth inning would have made her unavailable.
"I was really, really nervous," Maryott said. "I pitched in high school and I pitched for the Midnight Suns after the season was over. I've been on the (GCLL) All-Stars every year, but this is the first time I pitched in a state tournament. Once I got that first strikeout, I settled down."
"My back's been hurting me when I pitch, it's been tweaking me when I pitch," said Larson, who went to first base when Maryott took the mound. "But we had a reasonable lead. I don't think I'll start tomorrow, but I'll be available just in case."
Juneau's pitchers kept Kenai off-balance, especially early in the game when Kenai was dealing with its own case of nerves.
"This is our first trip to state, that I know of," Kenai coach Jay Griffel said. "They are nervous, but they'll settle in. Down in our area, we have few pitchers who have that speed and can throw it consistently."
"We got down early, and we were always behind the count after the first strike," Kenai coach Q Bird added. "Juneau took it to us."
After setting Kenai down 1-2-3 to open the game, Juneau scored three runs in the bottom of first inning. Right fielder Jordan Johnston led off with a single and went to second on an error, left fielder Torie Powers walked, then Larson doubled home Jordan with the first run. First baseman Joy Ross grounded out to second to score Powers, and Larson scored on a wild pitch to make it 3-0.
"It's really exciting," Johnston said of the victory. "We came out focused. We had a talk and wanted to make sure we were good in the field."
Juneau made it 5-0 with two more runs in the third inning. Larson doubled to lead off the inning, third baseman Ilea Belcourt singled one out later, and with two outs Hannah Barril reached second on a two-run error in left field.
The GCLL All-Stars added two more runs in the fourth inning as Johnston singled, Powers reached first on an error that sent Johnston to third, Powers stole second, Larson drove in Johnston with a sacrifice fly to center that sent Powers to third, then reserve first baseman Stephanie Smathers doubled home Powers to make it 7-0.
"That's the best part of being a lead-off hitter, getting something started," Johnston said.
Juneau's last run came in the fifth inning when catcher Nicole Bavard reached on an error at third, stole second, stole third and scored on an error at short.
"It was nice to get that first win under our belts," Powers said.
"I think we did really good," Smathers added. "But we could have done better."
The GCLL All-Stars didn't have any other teams from Southeast playing in their division this year, so the players took a trip to the Lower 48 with the Midnight Suns program to get some games in.
The Midnight Suns team that featured these players won the title in its division in the 110-team Alaskan Midnight Suns tournament in Salem, Ore., in late June; beat two teams from Waldport, Ore., and Florence, Ore.; then won its division at the Coppiner Firecracker Tournament in Monroe, Wash., in early July.
"I think it helps a lot, going down south," Larson said. "I thought we might have the occasional loss, but we went 13-0."
All but three of the GCLL All-Stars were on the Juneau-Douglas High School varsity team that took second place at state this year. Kenai, while it has other teams in its district to play, doesn't have a high school program.
"We play a month and a half each year and that's it," Kenai third baseman Katie Stroh said.
"We don't have a high school team," Kenai second baseman-relief pitcher Samantha Calderwood added. "If we had a high school team we'd be a lot better. We were a little nervous. But I think we'll be better prepared tomorrow."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.