After finishing the 2021 season as Division I Alaska state champions with a record of 17-0, the South baseball team still hasn’t broken stride to start their 2022 title defense campaign.
The Wolverines have cruised to a 6-0 record to open the season, extending their winning streak dating back to last year to an impressive 23 straight victories.
“We graduated a lot last year but I feel like the team we have now is pretty good,” senior pitcher Isaac Johnson said. “We’re still pretty close and it shows.”
While most of the players have been playing together since they were 9 and 10 in Little League, this year’s team is made up almost entirely of first-timers at the varsity level. The Wolverines graduated 15 of the 18 players that won it all in 2021. The three exceptions are now senior leaders and pillars of the 2022 squad.
“We tell them that ‘You’re here to show us what you got,’ and we have a lot of holes and have a lot of guys that want to fill them,” South coach Taylor Nerland said. “We’re going to keep learning and getting better throughout the season.”
The trio of seniors includes Johnson, catcher Curtis Herbert and infielder Oliver Brown. All three have already committed to play college baseball and hope to go out on top with consecutive title-winning seasons.
“It would be great to go back-to-back,” Brown said. “We’ve been playing together for a long time. There’s about six to seven of us that have been playing together since we’ve been 9 years old. If we can do it again, that’d be absolutely amazing.”
Johnson has been lights out on the mound for the Wolverines through their first six games, allowing one run.
“Isaac is one of those guys that when you put him out there, you kind of know what you’re going to get,” Nerland said. “He is just really consistent, he doesn’t really have a lot of bad innings, let alone bad games.”
Johnson expressed the same desire to win back-to-back championships.
“I know it would feel really good for all of us, especially the guys that won last year,” he said. “That’s what we’re ultimately going for.”
Brown has been on varsity since he was a freshman and was the starting shortstop on last year’s title-winning team. He earned 2021 First-Team All Cook Inlet Conference shortstop honors and was instrumental to their championship run. He is an even bigger contributor in his senior season as the Wolverines’ leadoff hitter.
“It’s a new role for him and obviously being a senior on the team, he wants to get out there and eat,” Nerland said. “I thought he did a great job hitting leadoff for us.”
Brown knows that this team is not a finished product, the season is far from over and the players can’t rest on accomplishments of last year’s team despite their red-hot start.
“We can’t just be living in the past about what we did last year,” Brown said. “We have to be present now and keep grinding forward for this season.”
Herbert has pretty big shoes to fill as the team’s starting catcher this year. His predecessor was Dylan Maltby, 2021 Gatorade Player of the Year for Division I baseball, who is now playing at Hesston College in Kansas. Nerland believes that Herbert has what it takes to be one of the best catchers in the state this year.
“He was right with Dylan last year as far as ability-wise but for us, it made more sense to put Dylan behind the plate and put him at third base,” Nerland said. “He started third base for us last year.”
Herbert is a do-it-all utility player who has already shown he can shine behind and at the plate as well as on the mound. He hit a grand slam against Wasilla in the first round of the Red Edward Matautia Invitational and followed it up by throwing an early season no-hitter to lead the Wolverines to a victory over the Warriors in the championship game.
Nerland has been the coach at South for nine years and has won two titles during that time, the first in 2016. He was an assistant at South when the team won a state title in 2013 and was an assistant at Service when the Cougars won the 2001 state championship.
“We take it game by game, and we just want to make sure that when we come out there that we play our game and try to play clean — don’t make any mistakes, mental mistakes especially,” Nerland said. “Physical mistakes are going to happen. You’re going to have errant throws come up, but it’s the mental ones that we want to eliminate.”