Juneau’s Nate Fick leaps to make a catch while another Eagle River run scores during the opening game Thursday of the Division I Alaska School Activities Association Baseball State Championships. (Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report)

Juneau’s Nate Fick leaps to make a catch while another Eagle River run scores during the opening game Thursday of the Division I Alaska School Activities Association Baseball State Championships. (Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report)

Crimson Bears finish sixth at state baseball tournament, coach calls season promising for young team

JDHS loses to Chugiak in consolation finale; scenarios for next season expand due to TMHS merger.

The Crimson Bears played their opponents even for eight innings of their final game of the baseball season. But it was the one other inning, when Chugiak High School scored three runs in the fourth, that resulted in a sixth-place finish for Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé at the Division I Alaska School Activities Association Baseball State Championships on Saturday.

JDHS was playing in the consolation bracket title game after an up-and-down state tournament. The Crimson Bears were knocked out of title contention with a 14-0 loss on Thursday against Eagle River High School (who finished as the state’s runner-up), then rebounded in an 8-6 victory over Colony High School on a grand slam home run by Landon Simonson.

Overall, making it to the final day of the state tournament capped off a better-than-expected season, said JDHS Head Coach Chad Bentz, who is also the school’s athletic director.

“The tournament was a great experience for them, for all the players,” he said. “We have a very young team so to get the opportunity to play in the state tournament was huge just in itself. It’s just a little different, a little more pressure, but it just reminded them that it’s the same game — 90-foot bases, everything’s the same — but it’s definitely beneficial for them just participating in the atmosphere, everything about it. So in that regard it was a great experience for them.”

The low point of the tournament was the one-sided loss on the opening day to Eagle River.

“We made a couple errors,” Bentz said. “And we walked some batters and they all scored, and when you give the other team more than three outs an inning they’ll take advantage and they did. And so it was a bummer, but like I told them at the end it happened, we’ve got to learn from it and move forward. And you know that the title game is off the table, but now we’re playing for pride.”

The result was the peak moment of the tournament for JDHS in its win against Colony. The Crimson Bears took a 3-1 first-inning lead, but Colony narrowed the gap to 4-3 by the end of the fifth inning.

“I was sure the guys were going to show up to play and not feel sorry for themselves from the day before,” Bentz said. “And so I was not surprised when they did step up to the plate. They played great.”

The key moment in the game came when pitcher Landon Simonson hit a grand slam in the sixth inning to make the score 8-3 — the first home run of the state tournament. He also pitched a complete game in a performance that helped make him the lone JDHS player to make the all-tournament team.

“Once he hit that I think they really believed ‘Hey, we’re going to win this thing,’” Bentz said.

That put JDHS in the 4th/6th place consolation title game against Chugiak — a formidable challenge since the Mustangs gave eventual state champion Service High School its toughest challenge of the tournament in a 2-1 loss on Thursday (“probably the best game of the tournament,” Bentz said). Chugiak then dominated West Valley High School 11-1 on Friday to reach Saturday’s faceoff against the Crimson Bears.

“I wanted to see how we were going to do against them,” Bentz said. “And we ended up playing them hard.”

He said pitcher Lamar Blatnick played well enough for the team to win by throwing five scoreless innings. But Chugiak’s pitcher threw a no-hitter and that meant the runs scored by the Mustangs in the fourth inning were the difference.

“We’re popping things up,” Bentz said. “We were rolling over a bunch of things…but we competed hard. It just didn’t end up working out.”

The Crimson Bears won the team GPA and sportsmanship awards for the tournament, he said.

While the sixth-place finish wasn’t what the team was hoping for when it arrived in Anchorage, it was more than Bentz said he expected at the beginning of the season since there were only three players with varsity experience on the team.

“The record probably wouldn’t suggest that it was a successful season,” he said. “But if you were to ask me if we had a chance to even sniff the state tournament I would have laughed really, really hard at the beginning of the year and said there’s not a shot that we will even make it close to the state tournament…The amount of improvement we’ve seen in players, mentally and physically, that in itself was the success. Whether we made the tournament or not, that’s icing on the cake.”

Among the players who stood out was pitcher Cayman Huff, a new addition who made the Region V all-conference team, Bentz said.

“He didn’t sniff varsity last year and honestly I didn’t see him doing much this year,” Bentz said. “And we just pitched him and he was getting outs, and we pitched him a little more and he ended up being our number-one pitcher statwise.”

Among the other adjustments was placing Blatnick, who has signed a letter of intent to play college ball as a catcher for the Dallas Christian College Crusaders, in the outfield when not pitching and asking Nate Fick to step into the catcher’s spot, Bentz said.

“He really stepped up behind the plate and that allowed us to get some more people (in a) faster outfield,” the coach said, referring to Fick.

The coming year will present new opportunities and challenges for the players — and coaches — due to the consolidation of students from Thunder Mountain High School into JDHS. While that will mean a bigger field of players to pick a varsity team from, it also means some Crimson Bears players expecting to be part of that team may have a tougher time making it than expected.

“There might be players that were on varsity that are starters that might not start, or varsity players that don’t make the varsity roster,” Bentz said. “I mean, it all depends on who shows up and wins positions.”

While that might be difficult for some players, Bentz said the emphasis from a coaching perspective will be on a unified team attitude.

“This whole thing with the consolidation of high schools, with activities and whatnot, I just hope that people can understand whether it’s good or bad people can have their own opinions, and that’s fine,” he said. “But it is what it is. And we got to make the best of it. And we just got to have a common goal, and that’s just to go out and give everyone an opportunity to participate or to make a team…I just really hope that the kids and the community can just accept what’s happening, and embrace it instead of fighting it.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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