Trying to snap a title drought, Service baseball is on a mission years in the making

May 9—The Service High baseball team had its first state championship in over two decades within grasp during last year's title game, only to watch it get ripped away when rival South Anchorage rallied in the bottom of the seventh inning to finish on top for a third straight year in a row.

Despite the gut-wrenching defeat, the Cougars view the loss as part of their progression.

"They've been motivated for three years now," Service head coach Willie Paul said. "Last year was a heartbreaker, but you get there, you experience it and then you move on to the next year with even more fire in your gut."

The Cougars are currently the only undefeated team left standing in the state at 11-0-1, with their lone tie coming in an 11-11 stalemate with Chugiak last weekend. Service players said they're determined and highly motivated to hoist a first-place trophy at the end of the season, which concludes in less than a month.

"We all trained hard in the offseason, and I think it is definitely a goal to come back and we're ready to win first this time," senior catcher Coen Niclai said.

He believes the key to the Cougars' success this year has been simply "putting the bat on the ball" as well as being aggressive at the plate.

"Our defense is always immaculate, so I think just putting the ball in play and just making the defense make the play is a key difference," he said.

Despite being the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year and a Division I recruit to the University of Oregon baseball team, Niclai didn't feel any additional pressure heading into his final high school season.

"I just enjoy Alaska baseball," he said. "Have fun and the results will come."

After coming up short at state last year and with one last chance for the graduating class of 2024, senior pitcher Hunter Christian says the Cougars "want it bad, and we're coming at it as hard as we can this year."

Paul says this year has been "great overall" and attributes their success on the field to a litany of players stepping up in virtually every situation.

"We had high expectations going into this year, and I think the guys have stepped up. But honestly, I still don't think we played our best baseball yet," Paul said.

There is a long list of Cougars who have risen to the challenge this year. Paul pointed to senior Jake Rafferty — who gave Coen a run for his money last year for Gatorade Player of the Year, Paul says — as well as Christian and Niclai's younger brother Rilan, who is also putting up phenomenal numbers.

"You can kind of go down our list and different guys have stepped up in different games," Paul said.

While the vast majority of Service's wins have come in lopsided fashion this year, including its first matchup with South, that wasn't the case Wednesday night at Mulcahy Stadium, where the Cougars faced off with Dimond and narrowly came out on top 1-0.

"It felt great, and it just shows that we're a great team, and we can beat anyone when we put our minds to it," Niclai said.

Even though it marked his team's lowest-scoring outing of the season, Paul thought it was a "phenomenal game" and was proud of how his team grinded to its toughest win of the season thus far.

"When you get out here with the weather like this, you just kind of have to grit it out," he said. "It's gonna become a pitcher's duel, especially with those two guys on the mound. When it gets this cold, hitters don't necessarily want to swing too much because it's going to hurt if you don't make good contact. It was a heck of a ballgame."

Pitching in brisk temperatures that saw snow falling by the final two frames was no easy task for Christian against the Lynx, a team Service had topped 7-1 a week earlier.

"I've played in Alaska my whole life, so you just persevere through it, but it's definitely a little tougher, a little colder, arms are a little tighter — but it's the same thing," Christian said. "I try to just go back to my mechanics and my roots and figure it out."

Christian managed to not only brave the elements but stay hot on the mound, throwing 15 strikeouts.

"Throwing strikes is the main thing," he said. "That's what I struggled with two games ago."

To come out on top of what was a fast-paced pitching duel between him and Dimond's Aiden Ray was "really gratifying" for Christian even though he didn't get to finish the game, exiting after six innings.

"These games are the best games to play," he said. "Obviously, they aren't the best for the fans because it's not a lot of action, but I think for the team, it's the best kind to play."

Although they're undefeated, the Cougars aren't taking anyone in the Cook Inlet Conference lightly down the stretch as they strive toward their goal of finishing on top this time around.

"Everybody in this league can kind of surprise anybody," Paul said. "We'll keep doing what we're doing, and like I said, I don't think we played our best baseball yet. Hopefully, these guys can really show everybody what it's all about."

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