State Tournament: Service, Eagle River advance to final

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Posted by Van Williams, ALB Media Director | Jul 25, 2022

Summoned from the center field to pitch, Landon Martindale stepped into a terrible situation: Two runners on base, no outs, game on the line.

Here you go, kid.

“I was shaking pretty bad,” he said. “It was nerve-racking.”

Showing nerves of steel, the Class of 2025 right-hander closed the door to preserve Service Post 28’s 8-7 victory over the Kenai Post 20 Twins in Monday’s semifinals of the Alaska Legion State Tournament at Mulcahy Stadium.

Martindale ended the game on a strikeout with the tying run on third base, ending a white-knuckle ride for the Cougars in the seventh inning.

The 5-foot-2, 110-pounder came up big in a number of ways for Service, which beat Kenai at the state tournament for the first time since 2002, snapping a five-game losing streak.

He started the game in left field and moved to center in the third inning when Carson Maltby left the game with a knee injury and had to be helped off the field.

Two batters later Martindale recorded an outfield assist when he cut down a runner at third base.

Kolby Jensen, a rising junior, filled in for Maltby in the lineup and knocked in a run with a single to right field on his first swing fresh off the bench.

“With our team, there's always another guy who can do whatever the other guy can't,” Martindale said. “That's what's really nice about our team, anybody can step up.”

Martindale’s number was called in the seventh when the relief pitcher recorded a 3-out save in a pressure-cooker situation.

“I’ve been in that position a couple other times in the high school season,” he said. “I just kept telling myself, ‘Gotta get this next pitch.’”

With the win, Service manager Willie Paul has led his team to the state final for the third time since 2016.

The Cougars clawed back from early deficits of 3-0 and 4-1 on the strength of a seven-run fourth inning explosion.

“There's so much pressure and excitement because we're such a young team and we're doing so well,” Martindale said. “I like all the guys and it's fun. Whenever we're doing good or whenever we're doing bad, everybody has such good spirits.”

Sebastian Fournier, Hunter Christian, Jensen and Coen Niclai each had RBIs in the inning, but the big hit was Sean Giffen’s 3-run double.

Giffen, a recent high school graduate, is the elder statesman on the team as its only upperclassman.

Giffen’s double to deep right center field cleared the bases and provided Service with a 7-4 lead.

He roared to his dugout in delight.

“I love Giffen. He’s a great guy,” Martindale said. “That hit really got us going. Everybody was up on the fence, coming out of the dugout to pick up the next guy.”

Later that inning, Jake Rafferty and Niclai banged out back-to-back doubles that scored Service’s final run and proved to be the difference.

Kenai didn’t go away. The Twins pulled within 8-6 on Jacob Belger’s two-run single in the fifth inning and got as close as 8-7 in the seventh on Charlie Chamberlain’s RBI groundball.

Reliever John Brinner was brilliant after a rough start, bouncing back to retire 10 of the final 14 batters to give his team a chance at the end.

Eagle River 9, South 5

In the second semifinal, the Wolves overcame two rain relays and a 3-run deficit in the sixth inning to stun the South Post 4 Wolverines.

Defending state champion Eagle River sent 12 batters to the plate and scored seven runs; btw, this is the second time this team has scored seven runs in the sixth in this tournament.

The bottom of the sixth lasted 34 minutes, including two short separate rain delays.

“I think the rain delays worked in our favor,” said Eagle River slugger Noah Lower.

The Wolves faced three different South pitchers in the sixth and denied ace Isaac Johnson a shot at ending his Legion career with a victory.

The South star pitcher came into the game with a 13-0 career record at Mulcahy Stadium but settled for the no decision after five-plus innings.

Lower, along with Charlie Wallace, Dallin Roberts, Liam Lierman and Josh Thompson, all knocked in runs to give Eagle River a 7-5 lead.

Tournament MVP candidate Connor Johnson put the game out of reach with a two-run single, giving him a tournament-best 10 RBIs.

“Everything went our way tonight,” Lower said.

Eagle River improved to 11-2 at the state tournament under manager Bill Lierman, who joined the coaching staff in 2020.

South looked to be in control, nursing a 4-2 lead entering the sixth inning. The Wolves were down, but not out, and somehow rallied for a stunning postseason win.

“We just want it more,” Johnson said. “Bill pushes us, tells us to grind through it, compete the whole way through and overcome any obstacle that happens.

“Just have that mental capacity to keep competing until the last out.”

This was a rematch of last year’s state title game, won by Eagle River 1-0 on a perfect night for baseball.

This game featured pounding rain and wind gusts, hardly ideal conditions.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Lower said. “When you’re focused, you’re that in the game, nothing is throwing you off.”

Lower’s RBI single in the third inning made it 4-2 before Johnson settled into a groove and retired seven of the next eight batters.

Everything changed in the sixth, however, after Karson Kolberg and Johnson drew back-to-back walks and Alex Mullen was hit by a pitch to load the bases.

Then came the rain and the first delay. Then the flood gates opened with seven runs.

Tonight’s game was another classic in the Eagle River-South matchup in what has become the state’s most high-profile rivalry.

“We all know what’s up when we play South. It’s going be a battle,” Lower said.

The way this one ended, he won’t forget about the ‘Monday Night Miracle’ for a long time.

“I don’t think I’m going to sleep tonight,” Lower said.