The South softball team celebrate after winning its second straight Cook Inlet Conference championship. Photo credit Joe White
Armed with nine senior starters, the South Anchorage softball team is loaded with the most experience in the Cook Inlet Conference.
That knowhow came in handy during the CIC championship game after the East T-birds jumped out to an early lead for the second time in as many days during the conference tournament.
And just like the first time, the Wolverines clawed their way back.
Anika Valdez hit the go-ahead home run in the fifth inning and Danni Desjarlais pitched all seven innings as South rallied for a 7-5 victory at Albrecht Fields to continue its undefeated season.
“The girls were resilient and they bounced back,” South coach Joe White told me. “It’s a great group.”
It’s also an unbeaten group. The Wolverines improved to 24-0 this year.
“We needed to be pushed because to be honest a lot of the games this year came easy for them, so it’s nice to see the competition against East and actually having to come back to win because we’ve done it two nights in a row,” White said. “It puts a little spark in them.”
South and East are the class of Class 4A softball in Alaska, but there appears to be a changing of the guard.
It started last year when South won state to snap East’s four-year reign, and has carried over to this year with the Wolverines beating the T-birds in the CIC title game for the second straight year.
The rivalry has pushed the sport to new heights, but White doesn’t focus on that or the team’s long winning streak.
“We try to keep it light and have fun,” he said. “Get serious when you need to get serious. I let them lead. I shouldn’t have to tell them a whole lot. They should know what to do. When it comes to game time, I let them do their thing.”
In the first inning, East’s Daisy Page ripped an RBI double and Nicolette Dabbs followed with a 2-run home run to extend the lead to 3-0.
“Daisy and Nicolette, they are tough outs, man,” White said. “They are just attacking that first-pitch strike and getting it.”
South is a calm, cool and collected group. However, White didn’t like how his team started the game.
“Too calm, too cool,” he said. “We were a little flat until East got on us and then the dugout turned it around and they were pumped up the rest of the game.”
The coach credited Desjarlais for keeping everyone even keeled. The starting pitcher is a model of consistency and the CIC player of the year. She doesn’t rattle easily.
She settled down nicely after the first inning and limited the T-birds to three runs over the final six innings, including scoreless frames in the sixth and seven innings.
“Danni is steady. She comes through pretty big for us in the circle and she has a good defense behind her,” White said. “She’s determined, ready to go and always puts forth her best effort. She always puts in extra work outside of practice, too, and that always makes a difference.”
By silencing East’s bats, Desjarlais allowed the Wolverines to catch their breath.
“That’s a lot of pressure on her,” White said. “I think she’s been the best pitcher in the state this year.”
In the third inning, South’s Sophie Hultberg hit a 2-run home run to tie the game at 3-3.
Still, East didn’t go away, a good sign for new coach Richard Knowles.
East took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the fifth before South exploded for four runs, highlighted by Valdez’s big fly.
“Those home runs made the difference today,” White said.
Both teams advanced to next week’s ASAA state tournament.
East and South have won every state title since 2012, but White cautioned his players about assuming anything at state.
“If you look ahead you’ll get beat,” he said. “It’s game by game and let’s have fun. For these nine seniors, it’s their last weekend of high school softball.”
Van Williams is a freelance writer in Anchorage and a correspondent for the Alaska School Activities Association.