ANCHORAGE — The Palmer Pioneers battled the South Wolverines open team to hold back a late inning rally and secure the Alliance Baseball League Matson Invitational Tournament title on Wednesday at Mulcahy Stadium with a dramatic 3-2 win.
The Matson was created by Alaska Legion Baseball as an end of season tournament for the bottom eight teams in the state standings in 2014, and the Pioneers won the tournament in just their sixth year of existence. As an eighth grader, Ben Alley played in the Matson in 2016. On Wednesday, Alley, a Colony High incoming senior, threw seven masterful innings, allowing South open just three hits and needing only 90 pitches to complete the outing. For his performance on Wednesday and also his five-out save against South open earlier in the week that sent the Pioneers to the finals, Alley was named tournament MVP for the Matson champion Palmer Pioneers.
“First pitch strikes were huge for him. He kept it in the zone and kept them off balance. He had great command of his curveball early and with that, they were guessing a lot up there and I can’t say enough about Ben Alley,” said Palmer head coach Matt McLaughlin. “There’s nobody on this team that works harder, that prepares harder, the best teammate, the best player that I could possibly ask for. That kid is phenomenal and he’s got a big future ahead of him.”
The Pioneers made the state tournament for the first time ever in McLaughlin’s first season at the helm in 2019. Narrowly missing out on a berth in the state tournament this summer, the Pioneers were the No. 1 overall seed in the Matson tournament and faced South Open three times during Matson play. South open is a team made up of players from Post 1 in South Anchorage that competed against varsity and junior varsity rosters during the course of the season.
The Pioneers and Wolverines would play a doubleheader on Wednesday to determine the Matson Champion. At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the Wolverines’ Oliver Brown threw seven innings of shutout baseball, striking out eight Pioneers and scattering just five hits as South cruised to the 5-0 victory. Brown threw Palmer their first loss of the tournament, forcing the ‘if necessary’ game immediately following the early morning game.
Palmer’s Brayden Methven pitched five innings and was relieved by Anthony Jones in the 5-0 loss. South open scored on errors in the second, sixth, and seventh innings. In the fourth inning, Maddux Soland scored on a Skyler Seguita single for the only earned run allowed by the Pioneers in the first game.
“Our hits came from the top of the order and I think it just had to come down to Oliver’s pitching. I mean that kid is lights out. Our approaches definitely could’ve been better but we were trying to get deep in the count and the second game we were more just attacking the first pitch so I think that was the biggest difference,” said Pioneers centerfielder Luke Guggenmos.
Needing a win in the second game against South open, Palmer’s bats finally began depositing balls beyond the infield turf into the outfield grass. In the top of the first inning, Bryant Marks walked and scored on a double by Evan Walker and Methven scored Guggenmos on a sacrifice fly to give Alley the lead before he’d even stepped on the mound.
“Pitching ahead really helps me. I have confidence that even if they get runners on I can still shut them down and we’ll be fine, that’s what happened,” said Alley. “It was really just the backup of my players, the teammates, everybody. There were fly balls and some grounders that were questionable and I was worried about them but they made plays and I’m proud of everybody that came out and just competed today.”
The Pioneers struck again in the top of the second with another sacrifice fly scoring Guggenmos, this time hit by Pioneers shortstop Kaden Ketchum. The Wolverines threatened to score in the fourth inning when Conner Lowe hit a single to right field. Walker calmly approached the ball and delivered it to first baseman Carson McLaughlin who completed the relay play to Brady Shults at home and tagged Soland out before he could score.
“I just really appreciate the way that he recoups when he gets behind in the count. He’s really matured in that way,” said Guggenmos of Alley. “He was able to dial it in on that outside corner and it just took a lot of maturity and it just showed his four years of legion ball that he’s played so far.”
Alley completed seven innings of work on the mound in just 90 pitches, scattering three hits and four walks, most of which came in the seventh inning when South made a valiant effort to come back and tie the game. After South loaded the bases, Kellen Curtis grounded out to Ketchum at shortstop for the fielder’s choice, but scored Lowe from third base to cut the Pioneers lead to just one run. With the bases loaded and two outs, Alley got Curtis Hebert to fly out to Walker in right field and end the threat. Walker was named Player of the Game and Alley Tournament MVP.
“It’s relieving honestly. I’ve been playing for the Pioneers for four years and I don’t think I’ve ever pitched this great of a game so it just gives me confidence,” said Alley.
Putting his body on the line for the Matson championship, Shults, Palmer’s catcher, caught 13 consecutive innings of baseball and knocked four hits during the two games.
“I love that kid. The last two years he’s been the rock and this team always can rely on him to be in the game and perform and do the things that a coach needs a catcher to do, to be that field general. I don’t think there’s a better one in the state,” said McLaughlin.
South open ended their season with an overall record of 23-8 while the Pioneers finished the year 15-11 playing only other varsity teams. For McLaughlin and the Palmer boys, the Matson title is the first of any kind since the program was revived in 2014.
“We beat a lot of quality baseball teams, it’s just unfortunate that it didn’t happen during league games,” said McLaughlin. “That’s your goal is to win the last one no matter what else happens, win that last game and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys for coming out and battling and winning that final game. Getting the trophy, that’s a bonus,” said McLaughlin.
The Matson title was bittersweet for the Guggenmos family. Older brother Luke earned first team All-State honors as an outfielder last year and took on a leadership role with the team as his younger brother Landon joined the squad last year. This year, the Guggenmos brothers helped the Pioneers take home a trophy from an end-of-season tournament during their last games on Alaskan baseball fields, as Luke enters his sophomore year at Northwestern College and the Guggenmos family is moving out of state.
“This time was definitely good just to walk off and especially for Landon my brother. I’m excited for him just to go to Colorado and just have some good memories getting 1st team all state pitcher and I’m just proud of the whole program, although that’s not exactly where we wanted to be at the end of the season,” said Luke Guggenmos. “It’s definitely big just for the momentum of a lot of young kids on this team.”