Thursday’s opening game at the state high school baseball tournament featured two teams trending in opposite directions.
The Soldotna Stars started hot but fizzled out in a 12-2 loss to the Sitka Wolves on Thursday morning at Mulcahy Field in Anchorage.
The Stars will face Lathrop today at 10 a.m. at Mulcahy in the consolation side of the state bracket. Lathrop lost to South 11-1, while Ketchikan topped Wasilla 11-1. Chugiak and Monroe Catholic played in the late game.
The Wolves can thank sophomore pitcher Vaughn Blankenship for the win. Blankenship tossed a complete game, even after a slow start that saw him give up a pair of runs and three triples.
However, he retired the last 16 SoHi batters to earn the win, striking out 10 and walking none along the way as well.
“(It was) just my arm, it’s been like that ever since I’ve been playing,” Blankenship said about the early trouble. “I just put it behind me, acted like it didn’t happen.”
Soldotna senior Joey Becher started and pitched 5 2-3 disciplined innings for SoHi, striking out eight and not giving up a walk until the sixth inning.
However, Sitka’s bats heated up as the game went along and the Wolves had six hits off Becher in the fifth and sixth frames, pushing the lead from 3-2 to 10-2. Sitka finished with 11 hits, while SoHi had 5.
Becher finished with nine hits and eight charged runs to his record, and was eventually pulled in favor of Caleb Spence.
“A two-run lead is sometimes a dangerous lead, and for us I think it’s a maturity thing,” Becher said. “I don’t know what the mentality was, maybe that we already won.”
SoHi was also without its starting catcher, senior Kenny Griffin, who was gone due to a prior commitment, and Becher said the change disrupted his confidence.
“It was kind of a bummer,” Becher said, who instead threw to sophomore teammate Cody Quelland.
“(Griffin) has been catching me through my whole life, and I’m just so much more comfortable with him. I can throw a dirt curveball and I just know he’s going to get there.”
Becher also lamented the base-running skills of Sitka, which stole six bases.
SoHi coach Robb Quelland said the early lead potentially hurt SoHi in the long term.
“That’s been the story of our season,” Quelland said. “We come out strong but lose a little focus, and Sitka kept pressing us, and we just had too many errors.”
Making their first state appearance in five years, SoHi started fast with three triples in the first inning, courtesy of Calvin Hills, Becher and Brandon Crowder. Hills finished the day 2 for 3, the only SoHi batter with multiple hits.
Cody Quelland opened the scoring, not from the plate, but rather by unsuccessfully stealing second base, allowing Hills to reach home for a 1-0 lead.
Crowder’s triple blast to center field plated pinch runner Jeremy Kupferschmid for a 2-0 SoHi lead.
At the top of the second frame, Becher kept the Stars momentum rolling, allowing a run on a Kyle Fitzsimmons double but getting out of the inning with three consecutive strikeouts to keep SoHi in the lead at 2-1.
However, the rest of the game snowballed downhill for the Stars. Hills reached on a single at the bottom of the second inning, but that would be the final time a SoHi batter got on.
Blankenship used a deadly fastball to retire the final 16 batters, including seven strikeouts.
“These teams are mentally strong, they don’t let the little things bother them,” Quelland said about Sitka. “They come out and play for seven full innings.”
Blankenship also had junior shortstop Ky Stockel to help him out. Stockel received player of the game honors by getting several grounders to Sitka first baseman Jesse Lantiegne to keep Soldotna off the bases in the late innings. Stockel also knocked in three on a double, single and a sac fly.
“It’s always big to have a guy like that,” Blankenship said. “If we keep it up, I think this team is capable of a lot.”
Stockel lifted a double to left field in the top of the third that scored Caleb Suarez to tie the game at two apiece, and the go-ahead run was delivered by the sac fly of Dayton Cropper.
Sitka scored three more runs in the fifth inning, all on RBI singles by Stockel, Cropper and Tevin Bayne.
Trevor Dalton powered a line drive to left field in the sixth frame to score two runs, putting the lead at 10-2 and forcing Spence to the mound and Becher to first base.
Becher said the Stars still have a job to do, even though their shot at the championship game is over.