Chugiak wins Legion baseball title
Alex Hess imagined a storybook ending for the Chugiak Mustangs, then he went out and authored a fairytale finish in the championship game of the 2013 Alaska American Legion Baseball Tournament Thursday night at Mulcahy Stadium.
Hess — who promised his teammates a state title on the first day of practice — rapped a clean single to left through a drawn-in South infield to plate John Ives in the bottom of the 11th inning, sending Chugiak players onto the field in celebration of a dramatic 4-3 win over South.
"On the first day I said to them, 'I'm gettin this to you after what happened last year,'" Hess said.
This was Hess' first season with Post 33 after moving to Alaska last year from Montana, so the 17-year-old wasn't around to witness the Mustangs' back-to-back defeats in last year's championship round against Kenai. But he said he heard plenty about the heartbreaking runner-up finish from the team's returners, and wanted to make sure those players didn't go home empty handed once again.
"They're just such great leaders and they really work hard for us," Hess said.
Chugiak's Chase Gall, Conner Cimmiyotti, Chase Wilson, Zach Bruegemann and Deven Ferriss were all key players on last year's runner-up team, and Hess credited those players with leading the Mustangs all season long.
"They really are our heart and soul," he said.
Wilson said he wasn't surprised in the least to see Hess come through in the clutch.
"When he makes a promise he always follows through," Wilson said.
Before Hess could make good on his prediction, he and his Chugiak teammates had to fend off a feisty South side that was looking to win its seventh consecutive tournament game.
Chugiak entered Thursday as the double-elimination tournament's lone undefeated team, meaning the Wolverines would have to win twice to claim the championship. And South was well on its way to doing just that after plating six runs in the fourth inning of a 7-4 victory in Game 1.
After that defeat, Ferriss said he couldn't help but think about last year's back-to-back losses in the final to Kenai Post 20.
"It was like deja vu," he said.
Between games, Chugiak coach Bill Lierman said he decided to put his team through a complete pregame warm-up routine as a way to reset the squad's mindest. Rather than telling them to relax, Lierman said he instructed his team to embrace the do-or-die situation.
"One of the things I've talked to them about is just enjoying the pressure, enjoying the environment," he said.
Game 2 was certainly a pressure cooker. South went up 1-0 in the top of the fifth inning on a Chugiak throwing error, but the Mustangs used a three-run sixth to put themselves within sight of the title. Hess opened the sixth with a walk, then advanced to second on a perfect bunt by the speedy Ferriss. Cimmityotti followed with another textbook bunt for a hit, and both Hess and Ferriss scored when the Wolverines committed one of their four errors in the game. Gall's single brought Cimmiyotti home, giving the Mustangs a 3-1 lead.
But South battled back, getting a pair of runs in the top of the eighth to knot things up until Hess' heroics.
Ferriss pitched four innings of scoreless relief to get the win. South's Nick Jensen took the loss. The victory means Chugiak will represent Alaska at the Northwest Region 7 Tournament Aug. 8-12 in Eugene, Oregon.
Several players had a hand in Chugiak's 11th inning magic. Joseph Fugere started things off with a one-out walk, then left the game in favor of pinch runner Ives. After Ives advanced to second on a passed ball, Vander Lekites rapped a single to put the winning run 90 feet from home plate. Christian Bohrer was hit by a pitch to load the bases and set up Hess for the game-winner.
After ripping reliever's Jacob Crapps' fastball into left field for the game-winner, Hess said he was overwhelmed with emotion.
"Everything went warm," he said. "Everything from my stomach up to my throat just got hot."
The victory was Chugiak's seventh state title and the fifth for Lierman, who won three championships as a player and also guided the Mustangs to the crown in 2008.
"Just to watch the guys celebrate like that is fantastic," Lierman said. "For these players to experience what all that hard work means...to have that elation is something they’ll always take with them."
After he and Ferriss engineered a sneak-attack water cooler bath for Lierman, Wilson fought back tears as he credited his hard-nosed coach with getting the most out of a Chugiak team that finished fourth during the regular season.
"He may be a hard coach to play for, but he's the best coach to ever play for," he said. "He's always there for you."