Two baseball teams from Southeast Alaska achieved firsts in the state baseball tournament during semifinal play Friday at Mulcahy Stadium.
Ketchikan reached the state title game for the first time, beating defending champion South 7-3, and Juneau handed Service its first loss of the season in a wild 11-10 affair that nearly ended after five innings due to mercy rules.
"It's probably the best game I've ever been in my life," said Juneau's Ryan Kelly said.
Kelly led Juneau's early onslaught with a two-run triple in the first inning and a two-run double in the fourth. Both of Kelly's hits were line drives that flew to the base of the fence, a sample of the crushing swings the Crimson Bears put on the baseball.
All the Crimson Bears seemed to be hitting well, and the three runs they scored in the fifth inning put them ahead 10-0 and nearly ended the game because mercy rules dictate any team up by 10 or more runs through five innings wins -- mercy rules will not apply to Saturday's championship game.
The Cougars, winners of 11 straight games coming into Friday's semifinal, responded like champions. They smashed line drive after line drive in the bottom of the fifth, eliciting loud cheers from the Service fans sitting down the first-base line.
"As soon as they started getting base hit after base hit, I was thinking, 'Wow, we just woke 'em up,' " Kelly said. "It was kind of a momentum shift, I mean you could feel it."
The Cougars scored six in the inning, forcing Juneau to use three pitchers to escape with a lead. Juneau extended its lead to 11-6 with a run in the top of the sixth, but Service came back with two runs in the bottom of the inning.
After a scoreless top of the seventh, Service was at it again, plating two and bringing the tying run to second with two outs and Cook Inlet Conference MVP Zach Ferntheil at the plate. Ferntheil grounded out to shortstop to end the game on a close play at first, but the Cougars felt better about losing a close one in the seventh than a blowout in the fifth.
"I would much rather have it this way, that way we know we came back and gave it our all," said Matt Ilalio, who notched three hits for Service. "Just cause we lost doesn't take anything away from our regular season, so it's OK."
Omar Mendoza's superb pitching dominated Ketchikan's win and Dalton Spear drove in four runs.
"It feels really great knowing this is our first time going to a state championship game and I was the one to help us do it," Mendoza said. "I felt really good this morning and I knew we'd put up a good fight and we did."
Mendoza pitched six scoreless innings before surrendering three runs in the bottom of the seventh and final inning. South started hitting the ball hard in the final inning, but Mendoza said he wasn't nervous and had no plans to come out of the game.
"I was getting a little tired, but I fought through it," he said. "I knew my team was there to help me."
Ketchikan didn't wait long to get on the board against South starter Josh Crapps, putting up three runs in the top of the first. Kenny Hamilton led off the game with a single to right field. After Colton Paulsen flew out to left and Brien Auger walked, Conor Fitzgerald drove Hamilton home for the game's first run. Spear drove in two more in the inning and the Kings were off to just the start they sought.
"We just attacked and we knew if we started hitting the balls, they would start shaking, they would get scared and start making errors," Spear said. "We got pumped up and we just kept cheering all seven innings."
Crapps walked a couple to start the third inning, nearly recovered by inducing Fitzgerald into a pop-up and striking out Nick Silva, but Spear made Crapps pay with a scorching line drive to right field to bring in two more runs and put the Kings ahead 5-0. The way Mendoza pitched, a five-run lead was a tough deficit for South to overcome.
"I think once we fell behind early, everyone went out there and started swinging for the fences and that led to us hitting pop-ups and ground-outs," said South's Bryan Baker, who drilled a two-run triple in the seventh. "It was the pop-ups that really killed us. Everyone was getting under the ball."
The secret to keeping the Wolverines off balance was a well-located fastball from Mendoza.
"He was hitting his spots just wonderfully, so that's what really changed the game, just how well he could hit the outside corner," said Fitzgerald, Ketchikan's catcher. "That's one of his finer pitching performances."
Juneau has won all four of its games against Ketchikan this season.
Find Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 257-4335.