After he accepted his Gold Glove award, had a championship medallion draped around his neck and helped his Chugiak Post 33 teammates hoist their American Legion state championship baseball trophy Thursday night, second baseman Alex Hess could not stop beaming.
"It feels so good,'' he said. "I can't stop smiling. My jaw is gonna be sore in the morning.''
Consider that minor pain for such a huge gain.
Hess ripped a bases-loaded, one-out, walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th inning to plate pinch-runner John Ives, give Chugiak a 4-3 win over South Post 4 at Mulcahy Stadium. The victory delivered redemption for Chugiak after falling in state championship games a year ago.
Hess' sharp grounder through the left side of South's drawn-in infield sent his teammates rushing onto the field from the first-base dugout, throwing their caps in the air at and gathering for bouncing group hugs.
All Ives knew about the decisive play was that Hess hit the ball hard between the third baseman and shortstop. And with the bases loaded, Ives knew he needed to bust his butt to get to home plate in case an infielder snagged Hess' shot.
"I didn't even know where the ball was,'' Ives said. "I just took off.''
Chugiak soon will take off for Eugene, Ore., where it opens play Thursday in the Northwest Regional tournament.
Chugiak earned its trip the hard way. It was the only unbeaten team remaining in the 10-team, double-elimination tournament entering Thursday, when South beat Chugiak 7-4 in an early game to force an if-necessary game for the title.
Chugiak knew that scenario all too well. A year ago, it was again the only undefeated team on the final day of the tournament, but lost twice to Kenai.
"We were close last year -- in the same position as today -- and we had a couple guys really scared we were going to repeat that,'' Ives said. "But we had a lot of people play tough.''
That group included starter Zach Brueggeman, who allowed just one unearned run in six innings of the if-necessary game, and reliever Deven Ferriss, who earned the win with four innings of scoreless, two-hit relief.
Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning in the decisive game, Hess, Ferriss and Conner Cimmiyotti sparked a three-run rally.
Hess drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second on a Ferriss sacrifice bunt that was so perfectly placed down the first-base line that it did not warrant a throw and turned into an infield single.
Cimmiyotti followed with another splendid bunt down the first-base line for a single. When South pitcher Sage Dudick's underhanded toss to first base to try to nail Cimmiyotti was low and errant, Hess and Ferriss both motored around the diamond to give Chugiak a 2-1 lead.
Chase Gall's single later in the inning scored Cimmiyotti to extend Chugiak's lead to 3-1.
South rallied for a 3-3 tie in the top of the eighth, when Spencer Floyd and Nick Jensen sandwiched walks around Vic Talwar's double to load the bases. Matt Illalio drove in Floyd with a fielder's choice and Alec Valdez scored Talwar with a ground-out.
"South is a great opponent -- they can really hit when they want to,'' said Chugiak catcher Chase Wilson. "The way they came back to tie it was unbelievable.''
Just as remarkable was Wilson's handling of the six pitchers he caught over the course of Thursday's two games. Literally dozens of times, Wilson dropped to his knees to block pitches in the dirt. He did not allow a passed ball in 20 innings, and he threw out two base-runners in the first game.
Hess did not have first-hand knowledge of Chugiak's disappointment of a year ago -- he moved here from Montana at the start of last school year. Still, teammates who returned to the squad this season, like Wilson, made sure he knew what motivated them.
"They tell us every day what happened last year and say, 'We can't let that happen again,' '' Hess said. "I promised them this year, from the first day, that we'd get it.''
South made that a difficult proposition. Josh Crapps pitched into the ninth inning of Thursday's opener and Jacob Crapps came in to earn the save. Illalio, Valdez and Andy Schafer each drove in two runs, and South erupted for a six-run fourth inning.
Come the bottom of the 11th in the second game, though, Chugiak no longer had to worry about another title slipping from its grasp.
"It's just so surreal, still,'' Wilson said 15 minutes after the finish. "We knew we had to fight. It wasn't going to be given to us.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY