Collin Hernandez will always remember his first trip to Alaska — and it’s not just because of the state’s large mountains and majestic beauty.
The rising junior pitched the best game of his young career, spinning his first career no-hitter to help propel the Emerald Challengers of Eugene, Oregon, past the two-time defending Alaska American Legion state champion Eagle River Wolves 1-0 on Friday night at Mulcahy Stadium.
“It feels great. It’s pretty big to throw a no-hitter,” he said. “The umpire’s zone was really low, so I just adjusted to it right there, and that’s what got me all the strikeouts and not hits.”
His team is in Alaska for the 2023 American Legion Alaska 529 Midseason Classic, and after being engaged in a fierce pitching duel with Eagle River’s Jack Molloy through five scoreless innings, he and the Challengers ultimately prevailed.
“In the sixth inning when there’s no hits off me is when my confidence is way up,” Hernandez said. “The nerves were up because I didn’t want to (allow) a hit off me.”
He struck out 10 of the first 13 batters he faced, including seven in a row, and finished with 12 total strikeouts.
“Collin has done a good job so far this year,” Challengers pitching coach Jon Guldager said. “He’s 4-0 now, and he’s our No. 3 or 4 starter. He adjusted to the zone, lowered his pitch and his change-up was really good today. He mixed speeds and stayed ahead of hitters.”
The game’s lone run came in the top of the sixth inning, when rising senior Eli Crist recorded an RBI single that plated sophomore Brock Johnson, who will be a sophomore in the fall.
“I was really relieved because a lot of times when I go up to pitch, the batters don’t really do their jobs, so it was good to get that one run,” Hernandez said.
While he was on Thurston High’s state championship-winning baseball team, Hernandez didn’t get to see a lot of consistent action, according to Guldager. But he’s making the most of the opportunity that he’s being given at the onset of the Legion season.
“This is my 32nd year in coaching and this is probably my second (no-hitter) ever, so it’s kind of special,” he said.
This summer is Hernandez’s first on the American Legion circuit, and he wasn’t even sure that he was going to make the team.
“I didn’t know that I had made the team yet, but when I found out we were going to Alaska, I was like, ‘Put me on the team,’ ” he said.
After he pitched the final three innings for Thurston in their semifinal win over Wilsonville, a Challengers’ coach came up to him and told Hernandez that he didn’t need to try out and that he had made the team.
“It’s pretty big to make a Legion ball team,” he said. “I’ve never been on a team like this before. Being here is really fun and we’re very competitive. We like to win and we know how to win.”
The team made the trip in part because their coaching staff established a good relationship with Eagle River’s at regionals a couple of years ago.
“We rallied together, raised some money, and it’s been fun being here so far,” Guldager said. “We’re playing 11 games in eight days, so there’s not a lot of other things we can do.”
Lower Columbia pulls away from South
The Challengers aren’t the only out-of-state team from the Northwest that made the trek to compete in this year’s midseason classic. Nor were they the only ones to triumph Friday night at Mulcahy.
In the third game of the day, the Lower Columbia Legion team from Longview, Washington, defeated South Anchorage 12-4, although it didn’t start off as a blowout.
“It’s a good way to start the trip, we’re up here for 10 days and it felt good,” Lower Columbia head coach Joe Bair said. “We got a lead, pitchers settled in, and (the team) hit the ball well.”
The two teams went pretty much blow for blow through the first three innings. Lower Columbia scored first with one run in the opening frame, and South answered with a tying run in the second.
After the visiting team from Longview rattled off four runs in the top of the third, the Wolverines nearly matched that effort with three runs in the bottom half of the frame.
Unfortunately for South, that would be their last scoring inning. Lower Columbia would go on to score seven unanswered runs over the next four frames.
“I think the key was our relief pitchers coming in and throwing strikes,” Bair said. “We played decent defense behind them and our offense took what they gave us. They gave us several free passes and we were able to take advantage of it.”
This is his team’s first time coming up to Alaska, and the idea to make the journey was inspired by a story that he heard on a podcast while mowing his lawn in 2020 during the pandemic.
“A coach from Wasilla was on a podcast talking about how they bring teams up,” Bair said. “I looked into it, I got ahold of (media director) Van Williams and said, ‘Hey, can we get on the waitlist,’ and he got ahold of me in the fall and said they had an opening. And we said, ‘For sure.’”
While they’re here, the team plans on making the most of the trip and doing some fishing, hiking and sightseeing.
“This is very comfortable weather for us and kind of what we’re used to, so it’s nice,” Bair said. “We’re looking forward to getting out and exploring a little bit.”
They didn’t have to do a big fundraiser for the trip because they let parents know well in advance so that they could start saving up for it.
Rising senior first baseman Logan Barker had a couple of hits and catches, including an impressive double play to ice the game in the bottom of the seventh.
“Logan had a good game,” Bair said. “He had some good swings and made some nice athletic plays on first base.”
Barker looks forward to fishing the most because Alaska has been on his bucket list of dream destinations to cast a line.
“I’ve always wanted to come here and go fishing,” he said.