ANCHORAGE — Catcher Nathan James summed it up best when he found out his team, Kodiak Post 17, qualified for the 66th American Legion Baseball State Championships.
"It felt like Christmas morning," the rising senior at Kodiak High School said.
Obtaining one of the eight spots at state was an unexpected present for the hometown nine.
The Bears earned the privilege to play in the big show at Mulcahy Stadium in Anchorage when Wasilla and Ketchikan were disqualified from sanctioned postseason play for not purchasing insurance before the May 31 deadline, set by the national legion office.
Post 17, which finished the regular season as the 10th-best team in the standings, gladly accepted the berth. It will be Kodiak's first appearance at a Legion state tournament since 1992. The program was a regular participant in the 1980s, and won it all in 1985, sending the team to compete at the Western Regional.
Post 17 coaches and players realize it will be difficult to join the 1985 team in victory circle.
At 7-11 in league, 10-16 overall, the Bears are the only team in the field to sport a losing record.
Kodiak, though, has a bevy of close losses this season, as the team lost four league games by a combined margin of seven runs to state tournament qualifiers South Anchorage (3-2 and 2-1), West Anchorage (5-3) and Service (5-2).
Picking up key league wins against West, Service and Ketchikan - all teams with winning records - kept Kodiak in the chase to benefit from the off-field penalties.
Being the eighth seed, Kodiak starts the double-elimination tournament against defending champion Juneau Post 25, which enters state with a 23-1 record - the only loss a 5-0 defeat to Chugiak. The winner advances to a Saturday game at 6:15 p.m., while the loser plays at 12:30 p.m.
This is Juneau's third straight No. 1 seed. The Midnight Sun, comprised of Juneau and Thunder Mountain high school players, has outscored No. 8 seeds 30-1 in the past two tournaments.
Kodiak has not won a state tournament game since 1986. The program ended in the early 1990s and restarted in 2013 as an A program. The Bears elevated to an AA program a year later and finished with a 10-8 league mark, losing a winner-to-state game to South on the final day of the regular season. South went on to win state as the No. 8 seed, the last team to do that.
With a young roster - three of the 13 players were still in middle school a few months ago, Kodiak has 10 wins this season, two more than it had in the previous two seasons combined.
Most of those wins came in July, as Kodiak finished the regular season winning eight of its last 13 games. The Bears hope to continue the strong play over the next five days.
The winner of the five-day tournament advances to the Western Regional in Montana, while the runner-up travels to the NWCART Tournament in Idaho.