Alaska has become a popular destination for the Napoleon Post 300 River Bandits.
The team from Napoleon, Ohio, this week is making its 11th trip to the state to compete in the American Legion Midseason Classic.
“It’s a tremendous trip for our kids,” Napoleon head coach Chad Donsbach said. “They get to do a lot of things that they don’t get to do in Ohio. We get to play quality opponents. We get to play some good baseball and we get to do some neat Alaska things while we’re up here.”
The night before they took the field for their first tournament game, the team decided to do some team bonding, sightseeing and get good exercise by hiking one of Alaska’s most popular landmarks, Flattop Mountain. And while the team generally enjoyed it, Donsbach said that sentiment was far from universal.
“There’s no mountain like that in Ohio,” Donsbach said. “(We) had some mixed reactions on climbing Flattop. Guys were happy we did it, but I was also told we’re never doing it again.”
The trip to the Last Frontier was the first for graduating senior Wade Liffick, whose preconceived notions about the state came from popular reality shows like “Life Below Zero.” He was part of the contingent that found the climb arduous but still enjoyed himself nonetheless.
“They all said that it was supposed to be a moderate trail and all these Alaskans were saying that it’s easy,” Liffick said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I thought I was going to die, like, five times, but it’s awesome being here. I love seeing all the mountains in the background.”
Donsbach said climbing that particular mountain was a “one-and-done trip” for the team, but players are looking forward to everything Alaska has to offer on and off the field.
“When we go to the Wasilla tournament, we’re going to do the Iditarod Museum,” he said. “We’re going to go up to Hatcher Pass (Independence) gold mine, the reindeer farm in Palmer, maybe get some fishing in.”
Despite the hike the night before, the River Bandits triumphed 5-3 over the South Post 4 Wolverines. South was the runner-up in last year’s American Legion championship tournament and has several players who were on the two-time defending Division I state championship team.
“We knew they were going to be really tough, we saw it in the infield,” Liffick said. “They’re a really good team, and we wanted to show them what Ohio is like and how our baseball is played.”
The game was scoreless through the first three innings before each team notched a run in the fourth. The River Bandits took their first two-run lead in the top of the fifth, but that advantage on the scoreboard was short-lived after the Wolverines managed to tie it up in the bottom of the sixth.
Napoleon won the tournament the last time it was played in 2019.
“We’ve been up here so many times that people know who we are and we always see their best efforts, and every time we’re playing, it’s a quality game,” Donsbach said. “We’ve got to do a better job than we did today of responding to the energy we get from the other side.”
The score remained the same through the seventh, but Liffick was able to help his team beat both South and the 2-hour, 15-minute game limit by contributing to both runs that were scored in the eighth and final inning.
He brought teammate Dade Robinson home on an RBI single and scored the next run himself when he sprinted to home plate following a wild pitch.
“I just came out here and tried not to have jetlag and tried to have a hot start for the tournament,” Liffick said. “I don’t usually like facing lefties, so it’s hard from that aspect, but I just had to fight through it and stay back on the ball. It was fun to able to do that for my teammates.”
Even though the game needed to go into extra innings, Donsbach was glad to see his team get tested and play in a tight game for a change because of the one-sided success they’ve been having against teams in their own state.
“It was a good game for us because we’ve handled some teams down in Ohio,” Donsbach said. “To come out of the gate with a tight one where we really had to battle and focus hard and compete at a high level is a good step for us to get going into this two-week trip.”