The stage is set for the Alaska Division I State Baseball Tournament championship game on Saturday afternoon after South High and Sitka advanced in convincing fashion Friday at Mulcahy Stadium.
The undefeated Wolverines will take on the surging Wolves in a rematch of the 2017 state title bout where Sitka narrowly bested South 2-1.
“We’re going to make their first (loss) I hope,” Sitka coach Kenny Carly said.
South head coach Taylor Nerland wasn’t at the helm of the program that year but he was a member of the coaching staff and vividly remembers the defeat.
“It didn’t go the way we would’ve liked it but hats off to them,” Nerland said. “They played a great game and we played a good game. They just ended up one run ahead.”
This marks Sitka’s first trip back to finals since that title run. The Wolves punched their ticket to this year’s championship game by pulling away from Chugiak late to secure a 12-3 victory Friday.
“I think we left 15 guys on base in the first four innings and only scored one,” Carly said. “I was getting frustrated and told the guys they’ve got to push some across. They started getting better at-bats, got on base and scored.”
While the final score suggests a lopsided affair, the Wolves actually trailed 3-1 after five innings before their bats erupted and the Mustangs’ pitchers ran out of gas in the top of the sixth.
“They were throwing strikes and we were hitting them and we were being selective on what we hit,” Carly said.
The floodgates opened when junior Dylan Marx smashed a three-run RBI and added another run to his team’s total after being forced in to home plate on a walk.
“That was huge,” Carly said. “It opened the game up for us and got everybody pumped.”
The hits and walks to home kept coming in the top of the seventh as Sitka tacked on another seven runs to their total in the final frame, including a two-run RBI by Marx.
“We just went on a run,” Marx said. “I was seeing the ball, our team was getting on (base), and doing what we do. I was trying to do everything I could to help us win.”
The Wolves had grown accustomed to sweating out the last couple innings during their postseason run up to that point but were relieved that didn’t have to be the case in the semifinals.
“Normally it’s the sixth when that starts to happen to us and we made it through that without too much,” Carly said. “I was very relieved.”
The second semifinal game featured a rematch of last year’s state title tilt and while it wasn’t the same 19-0 rout, reigning champion South was still in control of the game from start to finish. With the 7-1 win over the Colony Knights, the Wolverines advanced to their second straight state championship game and eighth in the last nine years, excluding the cancelled 2020 COVID-19 season.
“We did a good job of getting on them early and doing what we’ve done all year,” Nerland said. “Making sure we’re staying disciplined at the plate, being on time to the ball and hitting hard somewhere.”
South scored all of its runs in the first three innings of the game and was jumpstarted by senior utility player Curtis Hebert, who had a hand in scoring all three of their first inning runs. He hit a two-run RBI and was driven home on an RBI by his teammate, Ben Neuberger.
“It’s always great and I’m just happy to be out here,” Hebert said. “Great weather, great team and guys on base for me and I’m just trying to do a job.”
The Wolverines added four more runs to their total over the next two innings including another three-run inning in the bottom of the third that included another run scored by Hebert.
“He has always been our guy that shows up day in and day out that is going to work hard and grind,” Nerland said. “He’ll get hits and won’t be happy because he didn’t hit them as hard as he would’ve liked.”
Earlier in the day before the game started, Hebert was named the 2022 Gatorade Player of the Year for Division I high school baseball.
“It’s amazing and a great honor just something you can’t really explain,” Hebert said.
Hebert will be South’s starting pitcher in Saturday’s championship game and is excited for the opportunity to close out his high school career with a second consecutive state title.
“I’m pumped,” Hebert said. “This is what you dream of in the backyard so I’m ready. There’s nothing better.”
Even though South will be heavily favored to come out on top, Nerland knows just how dangerous the team from Sitka can be. He said the Wolverines aren’t looking past them.
“Every team that is here is deserving so you can’t sleep in anybody,” Nerland said. “There’s a reason they are here and a reason that other teams are not here. It’s because they know how to play ball. We know from the past two games that we’ve seen that they’re a good team.”