It wasn’t easy, but Kodiak’s baseball team is headed back to the state tournament for the first time since 2011.
The Bears punched their ticket to state with a 10-7 win over Kenai in the Southcentral Conference Championships’ second-place game Saturday in Wasilla.
Kodiak (10-4) raced out to an eight-run lead after the second and hung on as Kenai closed to within two in the late stages of the game.
The Bears were forced into the second-place game after losing to Colony 9-1 in Friday’s championship game.
“I couldn’t tell you how proud I am of this team,” first-year Kodiak coach James Arnold said. “They have worked very, very hard. I’m very excited for them. For a lot of them this is their first time.”
Senior Brandon Mahle and junior Austin Frick are the only players left on Kodiak’s roster from the 2011 state qualifying team. This is the Bears’ sixth trip to state since they won it all in 2004. Kodiak begins its state struggle at 10 a.m. Thursday against Southeast Conference champion Ketchikan.
Mahle was on the mound to close out the Kardinals in the seventh. He struck out two of the four batters he faced to become Kodiak’s single-season leader with 43 strikeouts.
“It was an awesome feeling for the entire team to watch him go up there and shut those kids down and break the strikeout record,” Arnold said. “When that third strike came, I couldn’t even get off the bucket, except to go get the game ball — that ball is going to go in a case at the high school with his record on it.”
Early on, it didn’t appear Kodiak would have to go to Mahle for the save. The Bears posted nine runs in the first two innings off of a pair of Kenai hurlers and pounded out eight of their 11 hits during that span.
Already leading 4-1, Kodiak scored five runs with two outs in the second on two-run singles by Jakob Arnold and Jon LeVan and a Tyler Jester single.
Even with an eight-run cushion, Kodiak’s coaching staff didn’t feel the game was over, based on Kenai’s come-from-behind win over the Bears during the regular season. In that game, Kenai scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh to win 6-5.
“I wasn’t comfortable with it,” Arnold said. “What happened to us before when we played them, I knew these guys don’t quit.”
Kenai got three scoreless innings from its third pitcher, Hector Rivera, which let the Kardinals claw back into the game. Dallas Pierren, who had three of his team’s six hits, scored on a passed ball in the sixth to cut the deficit to 9-7.
Kodiak picked up an unearned run in the bottom of the sixth and then turned to Mahle to finish the game.
Austin Frick pitched the first four innings to get the win, while LeVan worked two innings of relief — his second appearance during the three-day tournament.
“Jon LeVan was huge this week for us. The box scores are not going to show just how important he was. To come in to those pressure situations and throw those pitches and pound the strike zone, it is just awesome for us.”
Jester, Frick, Myles Wilson and Aaron Polasky all had two hits apiece for Kodiak.
Colony 9, Kodiak 1
The Bears gave up eight runs in the sixth inning to fall to Colony 9-1 in the championship game Friday evening.
Kodiak starter Jakob Arnold cruised through the first five innings on only 47 pitches. He nearly equaled that total in the sixth inning when Colony exploded for eight runs on six hits and four Kodiak errors.
“He did great for 5 2/3 innings and then the wheels fell off for us,” Arnold said. “We had too many errors, but those things happen. That was a championship game and you have to learn from those and move forward.”
Colony broke the 1-1 game when Johnathon Boyer scored on a groundball error. Morgan McJimsey dealt the big blow with a three-run home run that gave the Knights an 8-1 cushion.
Colony’s Dalton McHugill struck out eight, walked three and allowed four hits in the complete-game victory.
Kodiak’s only run of the game came in the fourth inning on a Sam Kirchenschlager single that scored Austin Frick, who led off the inning with a single.
Polasky and Wilson tallied Kodiak’s other two hits — both singles.
Contact Mirror writer Derek Clarkston at email@example.com.
BEARS 10, KARDINALS 7
Kenai 101 302 0 — 7 6 5
Kodiak 450 001 x — 10 11 5
Short, Sisson (1), Rivera (2) and Conver, Lee (2). Frick, LeVan (5), Mahle (7) and Chya.
RBI: Kenai — Lee, Short, Pierren. Kodiak — Jester 2, Arnold 2, LeVan 2. Three hits: Kenai — Pierren. Two hits: Kodiak — Jester, Frick, Wilson, Polasky. Double: Kenai — Lee, Short.
Winning pitcher — Frick (Struck out three, walked four). Losing pitcher — Short (struck out none, walked three).
KNIGHTS 9, BEARS 1
Kodiak 000 100 0 — 1 4 4
Colony 010 008 x — 9 10 2
Arnold and Chya. McHugill and n/a.
RBI: Kodiak — Kirchenschlager. Colony — Sanders, McJimsey 3, Ross, Judd, Mileur. Two hits: Colony — Boyer, Ross. Home run: Colony — McJimsey. Double: Colony — Boyer.
Winning pitcher — McHugill (struck out eight, walked three). Losing pitcher — Arnold (struck out three, walked one).