American Legion baseball had a few changes this season.
Four AA teams -- Kodiak, Ketchikan, Palmer and a second Fairbanks squad -- were added. And a new format debuted -- the league broke into two, eight-team divisions.
Last year, Juneau fielded a team for the first time in more than a decade and Kodiak played at the junior varsity A level.
Postseason rules also changed this season.
The top three teams from each division and two wild card teams make the state tournament, which starts Friday at Mulcahy Stadium. Previously, every team made the playoffs.
That means the double-elimination tournament is even tougher for teams hoping to finish as the best in Alaska. This year, every team has a winning record -- unlike in the past when lower seeds were sometimes well below .500.
“It’s a talent-filled pack for sure,” Wasilla head coach Boone Thompson said. “Every team in this tournament can beat any other team in this tournament.”
At 15-3, Wasilla finished with the best league record, but a No. 1 seed is meaningless, Thompson said. Wasilla would know -- the Road Warriors were the top team last season but lost to eventual champion Chugiak, then to runner-up South.
Wasilla has a chance for redemption -- it opens Friday against a South team that ended the Road Warriors’ season last year in a loser’s bracket elimination game.
“Probably the toughest eight seed you’ll see in a long time,” Thompson said of South, which finished second this high school season and clinched the final Legion playoff spot with a win over Kodiak in its regular-season finale.
Last year, South nearly became the second straight team to emerge from the loser’s bracket and win a state Legion title. South forced an if-necessary game with a 7-4 win over Chugiak, which won its seventh championship with a thrilling 4-3 victory in extra innings.
Chugiak has reached the finals the past two years -- both times, it took a second game to crown a champion. In 2012, Kenai beat Chugiak twice to earn its third Legion title. The Twins eked out an 8-7 win in the first game then cruised 11-4 to claim the title.
“I still remember those Kenai games very vividly,” said Deven Ferriss, Chugiak’s lone 19-year-old.
The team wasn’t mentally prepared for Game 2 against Kenai, he said, but Chugiak used the tough lesson the following season in the second game against South.
“We embraced the do-or-die situation,” Ferriss said.
Remaining calm -- especially when trailing -- is essential, Ferriss said, and he’s spreading that message to his younger teammates.
“Everybody has to get zoned in,” he said.
The state champion earns a trip to Eugene, Oregon, for the Aug. 7-11 Northwest Regional tournament.
The second and third-place teams’ seasons will also be extended along with the winner of the consolation tournament, which will be held Friday through Wednesday at Bartlett.
Those three teams earn berths to the NWCART tournament that is set for Aug. 8-12 at Mulcahy Stadium.
Steve Nerland, president of the Alliance for Support of American Legion Baseball, expects to have 16 teams again next season. The league is interested in adding teams in Sitka and Homer, he said, but there isn’t enough commitment yet to move forward.
“We are definitely looking at expansion in the future,” Nerland said.
Reach Mike Nesper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
American Legion state tournament
9 a.m. -- Chugiak vs. Dimond
Noon -- Service vs. Juneau
3:15 p.m. -- Eagle River vs. Kenai
6:30 p.m. -- Wasilla vs. South