ANCHORAGE — It may not be Juneau’s five-run eighth that will be stuck on the minds of Ken Ottinger and the Wasilla Road Warriors. But it could be the mere inches that separated Bryce Frazier’s fingertips and the dish during a play at the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning.
With the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh, Juneau was able to get the force at home and prevent Wasilla’s bid to push across the game-winning run, and then tacked on five in the eighth to score a 13-8 extra-inning win over the Road Warriors during the Alaska Legion Baseball state championship game Tuesday night at Mulcahy Stadium in Anchorage.
“I think we were literally two inches away from winning a state championship,” Ottinger, Wasilla’s head coach, said after the loss.
Wasilla trailed 8-7 in the bottom of the seventh. Kyle Graham hit a leadoff double. Clancey O’Donnell was hit by a pitch. Waylon Payne used a bunt single to load the bases. Balau Buckmaster followed with a sacrifice fly that pushed Graham across to tie the score at 8. Byson Malave drew another walk to load the bases once again.
With the bases loaded, Max Wasner put down another bunt. Frazier, a pinch-runner for O’Donnell, charged home, but Juneau pitcher Christian Ludeman was able to get the ball to catcher Brock McCormick just before Frazier’s left hand slid across the plate to get the force at home. With the bases still loaded, Juneau was able to get the third out to get out of the jam.
“Being two inches away from a state championship, it’s hard,” Ottinger said. “I’m a small ball guy. I’ll live and die by it, and that’s the first time I’ve died by it in four years.”
Bobby Cox used a bases-clearing triple to spark Juneau’s five-run eighth and help the Midnight Suns win their third straight Alaska American Legion state title. The state title game capped an epic five days for the Road Warriors, the top seed in the eight-team field. Wasilla’s run to its third trip to a legion state final in program history included a come-from-behind win over Dimond in the first round, a walk-off win over state power South Anchorage, and a 1-0 shutout victory over a Chugiak team that was undefeated against Wasilla during the regular season.
“This has been the hardest tournament so far,” Ottinger said.
Ottinger said the long double-elimination tournament tests players and coaches both physically and mentally.
“It’s literally a grind,” Ottinger said. “The strategic aspects. Who are you going to pitch? Who are you going to play? Who’s hot, who is not? Lineups drawn and lineups torn up.”
Ottinger said he’s proud of how his players continued to battle throughout the tough tourney.
“That’s been the epitome of them all year long. They’re not scared,” Ottinger said.
Wasilla used its aggressive style to take a 3-1 lead in the first and stretch it to 5-1 in the third. Juneau was able to grab a pair of runs in both the fourth and the fifth, and added three in the sixth.
Six different Warriors finished with at least one RBI. Payne drove in a team-high two runs. Graham led Wasilla with three runs scored, and Jacob Gilbert added two runs.
The trip to a state title game continued a historic stretch for Wasilla baseball programs. In June, the Wasilla High School team earned its first state title in program history. The Road Warriors played in the American Legion title game for third time in program history and the first time since 2010.
“Between high school and legion, we were like 60-8. It’s been incredible,” Ottinger said.
The bulk of the legion team is made up of the talent that celebrated a prep state title. The Road Warriors also featured three Wasilla graduates — Graham, Taylon Ottinger and Austin Robertson — who recently completed their first season of college baseball.
Despite the loss, there is still more baseball to be played for the Road Warriors. With the runner-up finish, the team earned the chance to compete in the Northwest Class A Regional Tournament next week in Cody, Wyoming.
Ottinger said he’s happy to have the chance to spend another week with his players, including his son, Taylon, who is in his final season of American Legion eligibility.
Contact Frontiersman managing editor Jeremiah Bartz at email@example.com.