State Tournament: South scores three runs in 7th, rallies for 3-2 walk-off win over Service in Division I title game

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Posted by Van Williams, ALB Media Director | Jun 3, 2023

Ben Neuberger got the party started Saturday and Luke Beard made sure the celebration would never end.

Neuberger’s leadoff home run and Beard’s walk-off single provided bookends in a three-run rally in the bottom of the seventh inning that carried South to a stunning 3-2 victory over Service in the title game of the ASAA Division I state tournament in Sitka.

Beard knocked in Carson Maltby from third base with the winning run after blasting a hot shot past a drawn infield with one out, giving the Wolverines an improbable win to continue their stranglehold of Alaska high school baseball.

Beard threw his helmet in the air as he went to first base and then sprinting to the Moller Park outfield, followed by a string of South players.

They call him ‘BG’ – as in Big Game.

This was the third straight state championship for the Wolverines, who finished the season 19-2 and went 8-1 in one-run games, winning two of them at the state tournament.

This comeback will stand out above the rest because it came in the state title game, it came against their archrival in the Cougars and it came when it looked like the Wolverines were dead in the water.

Turns out the Houdini-like squad was saving its best for last.

Despite having an uncharacteristically off night with the bat (no hits through five inning) and on the basepaths (one runner picked was off, one was thrown out at third base and another was chopped down at the plate), South still found a way at the end.

With his team down 2-0 entering the final frame, Neuberger led off by crushing a no-doubt bomb to right centerfield to break up Andrew Hickman’s shutout bid.

Neuberger got the momentum going and it snowballed from there.

Blake Peterson singled and Gavin Partch was hit by a pitch. Kolby Jensen laid down a sac bunt to move both runners into scoring position. South called a squeeze play with the runner from third breaking as Gavin Alexander bunted back to reliever Rilen Niclai, who gloved the ball to catcher Coen Nicali but Peterson had slid in under the tag to tie the game 2-2.

Beard came up next and lived up to his nickname, getting the big hit in the big game.

The loss no doubt felt like a gut punch for the Cougars, who had done everything right before a nightmare seventh inning wiped it all away.

The Wolverines are hard to put away. The team has gone 17-0, 26-0 and 19-2 in each of the last three seasons, including 15-0 in the playoffs.

All that winning is contagious. Players get used to it; they crave it.

Saturday night showcased the team’s remarkable resolve. The Wolverines never stopped coming at Service, and no matter how many times it looked like the Cougars (16-7) had successfully swatted them away, the game was always within reach.

Both starting pitchers (Hickman and Jensen) were on point to begin the game as the score was 0-0 entering the fourth inning. That’s when Service loaded the bases against Jensen, who gave way to Neuberger. He allowed a sac fly to Owen Hickman before striking out the next two hitters, limiting the Cougars to just one run despite having the bases juiced with no outs.

It looked like South would get even in the bottom of the fourth after Chase Mascelli led off with a double down the left-field line. But he tried to extend his double into a triple and was thrown out at third on a 7-6-5 relay.

In the fifth, Andrew Hickman pitched around a runner on second base with one out. In the sixth, he pitched around a leadoff triple thanks to the defensive play of the tournament by shortstop Hunter Christian, who saved a run after throwing out a runner at the plate.

With Beard on third, Mascelli ripped a shot to Christian, who went to the turf to field the ball and threw out Beard from his knees.

In the top of the seventh, Service pushed its lead to 2-0 after Sebastian Fournier walked, stole second base, went to third on Landon Martindale’s infield single and scored on a passed ball.

It was a tough luck run to give up for Neuberger, who had shut down Service since coming out of the bullpen in the fourth and retired six straight and nine of 11 since entering the game.

The seventh inning was where Jensen, Alexander and Beard made amends that made them state champions again.

Jensen, who was on the hook for the loss after loading the bases that led to his team’s 1-0 deficit, got down a sac bunt to move runners into scoring position. Alexander, whose passed ball allowed Service to go up 2-0, drove in the tying run. Beard, who was thrown out at home in the sixth, knocked in the winning run.

Lost in South’s comeback was the brilliant pitching performance of Service junior Andrew Hickman. 

When the right-hander faced the Wolverines two weeks ago, South scored five runs off him in the first inning. This time Hickman was dialed in and carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning.

Third Place Game

Preston Rau was his usual steady self on the mound and the Mustangs gave him early run support as they took care of Colony 7-2.

Rau went the distance, scattering two hits, three walks and a hit batsman across seven innings. He struck out five batters, including three out of five over the third and fourth innings.

The right-hander showed why CIC coaches selected him for the Wade Blasingame Top Pitcher Award as he mixed speeds and pounded the zone. Both runs he allowed were unearned.

He recorded two 1-2-3 frames and enjoyed a six-pitch inning. He also got a 5-4-3 double play and pick off behind him in addition to a nice catch in the gap by right fielder Gabe Gruszynski to rob Brayden Parrent of extra bases.

Rau finished the season with a 5-0 record and 0.63 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 44.1 inning. He only issued eight walks all season – and three of them came Saturday to Colony leadoff hitter Boman Marks.

Chugiak plated a pair of runs in the top of the first inning after Fischer Sims led off with a single and scored on Tyler Cage’s RBI single. Then Cage scored on Landon Luebke’s sac fly.

In the third, Michael Boudgreau and Luebke led off with back-to-back walks and scored on Hunter Rau’s groundball and Andrew Gruszynski’s double.

Luebke doubled to lead off the fifth and scored on an error, giving the Mustangs their third run when the leadoff man reaches base.

Nine-hole hitter Carter McCormick delivered an RBI single in the seventh and scored on an error to make it 7-2. He also made a nice catch in the left-field corner to end the game and rob Colony’s Nate Wilson of a two-run double.

Chugiak’s win avenged an 8-7 loss to Colony earlier this season and gave the Mustangs 15 victories on the season – tied for the third most in school history.

Colony relief pitcher Zephon Rhowmine stood tall, getting the Knights out of a sticky situation in the third inning and finishing with 4.1 innings. Only one run he gave up was earned and he wiggled out of several jams with runners in scoring position, including the fourth and fifth innings.

Colony’s Brayden Parrent singled in his final at-bat, his fifth hit of the tournament. He also homered on Day 1.

Fourth Place Game

Josh Thompson stayed hot, Gunner Mountcastle had three RBIs and Alex Mullen pitched into the seventh inning to highlight Eagle River’s 6-3 win over tournament host Sitka.

Thompson went 2-for-4 with a double, two runs and an RBI. He went 5-for-8 with a walk over the final nine plate appearances of his high school career.

The left fielder also made a nice catch in the gap to rob Ben Turner of extra bases and an RBI in the fourth inning in support of Mullen. The senior right-hander pitched 6.1 innings before issuing a one-out walk and giving way to Tommy Molloy.

Mullen struck out five batters, including one to end the fifth with two runners on after Sitka had pulled within 5-3. He gave up two runs in the first two innings and then settled down to allow just one over his last 4.1 innings.

Eagle River’s Connor Lanehart knocked in a run in the first inning, his team-leading 24th RBI of the season. The Wolves tied the school record with their 15th win.

After Thompson’s RBI single tied the game 2-2, Gunner Mountcastle put the Wolves ahead for good with a two-out, two-run single. Mountcastle added to his RBI total with a run-scoring single in the fifth and a run-scoring groundout in the seventh.

Sitka’s Tanner Stinson, Keaton Blankenship and Grady Smith each drove in runs while Sam Johnson and Chase Coleman each had two hits. Johnson also made a nice sliding catch in right field. Caleb Calhoun started and pitched five innings, giving up two earned runs and getting a 6-4-3 double play behind him.