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Service baseball caps off undefeated season with first state championship since 2001

Jun. 2—The last time a Service High baseball team hoisted a state championship trophy, not only were none of the players on this year's team born, some of their parents were not too far removed from being in high school themselves.

With a 5-1 victory over Eagle River on Saturday night at Mulcahy Stadium in the Division I state finals, the Cougars snapped a 23-year title drought and capped off an undefeated season with a record of 22-0-3.

"It's huge," Service head coach Willie Paul said. "We've been there several times and come up short several times, unfortunately, but it has all built to this moment, and it feels great and really great for this group because they've been here several times and to finally punch it all the way through is awesome."

The Cougars goal was never to go undefeated and it wasn't on the forefront of their minds throughout the season, but having it be a byproduct of their success was gratifying all the same.

"We haven't really focused on that at all," Paul said. "It's just something that happened along the way."

The game was a rematch of last week's Cook Inlet Conference tournament title game that went down to the wire but wasn't nearly as dramatic even though Service finished with the same amount of runs in both games. The Wolves were only able to manage a single run Saturday in the bottom of the second after the Cougars drew first blood with the first run of the game in the top of the second.

"They're always a tough team to beat, especially with Liam (Lierman) on the mound," Paul said. "He is one of the top arms in the state. We faced him in the championship last year for Legion, faced him in the championship in high school this year for regionals and state. It's always going to be a grind to get to him and get runs on the board."

After a scoreless third inning, the Cougars got hot at the plate and capitalized on some errors by the Wolves in the top of the fourth to score a trio of runs before Eagle River coach Bill Lierman decided to take his son off the mound and have him trade places with first baseman Tommy Molloy.

"Second time around in the lineup, everyone knew what to expect," Service senior pitcher Jacob Rafferty said. "We've faced Liam a lot so it was nice to get the jump on him and see a new pitcher in the game."

To not only go out on top as a senior but to do so without having lost a game made this ride even more special for Rafferty and his fellow class of 2024 graduates on the team.

"We've been through a lot together with this squad, and it was bound to happen that we all come together to get the job done," he said. "We've worked really hard for this for four years and with all the boys. It was nice to get it done."

Rafferty pitched nearly the entire game until he was begrudgingly called off the mound in the bottom of the seventh with two outs on the board and runners on first and second base.

"(Jacob) is clutch, he's a big-time gamer and he wants the ball in every situation," Paul said. "He didn't want to come off there at the end because he wanted to finish it but sometimes you have to put player's safety into account and he was up there pitch-count wise."

The Cougars called upon sophomore pitcher and infielder Rilen Niclai to close out the game, and that is exactly what the standout underclassman did when he struck out Eagle River senior Gunner Mountcastle.

"That was clutch, and he is going to be making big strides for us and be a very pivotal part (of the future)," Paul said.

Rafferty and Niclai have been close since they were kids, and even though he was "fighting pretty hard" to stay in, Rafferty was confident the sophomore could get the out.

"I wanted that, but I had to trust my dog Rilen, and I knew he was going to get it done and he did," he said.

In addition to being the Cougars starting pitcher in the state title game, Rafferty was their lead-off hitter and made the most of his opportunities at the plate by leading the team with two hits and two RBIs.

"I was working on throwing a lot of strikes, my control felt pretty good today, my slider was able to lead to a lot of strikes and quick outs," he said. "(At) the plate it was only fastballs, see my pitch and press my approach."

The Cougars have several players in contention to be named 2024 Gatorade Player of the Year including senior Hunter Christian who was named CIC MVP, Rafferty, who received the top pitcher award, and 2023 honoree Coen Niclai, who got the Big Stick Award, and is committed to play Division I baseball at the University of Oregon.

"There are a lot of guys on this team that deserve that award," Paul said. "You could never ask me to choose one, because I think they're all very deserving. We're excited for one of them to hopefully get that."

2024 ASAA Division I State Baseball Championship

At Mulcahy Stadium

Thursday

Quarterfinal

Sitka 11, West Valley 1

Eagle River 14, Juneau-Douglas 0

South 5, Colony 4

Service 2, Chugiak 1

Friday

Consolation

Juneau-Douglas 8, Colony 6

Chugiak 11, West Valley 1

Semifinal

Service 15, Sitka 1

Eagle River 6, South 1

Saturday

Third place

Sitka 11, South 3

Fourth/Sixth place

Chugiak 3, Juneau-Douglas 0

Finals

Service 5, Eagle River 1

2024 ASAA Division II State Baseball Championship

At Wasilla High School

Thursday

Quarterfinals

North Pole 14, Monroe Catholic 4

Kenai Central 11, Petersburg 7

Soldotna 6, Kodiak 2

Palmer 28, Delta 1

Friday

Semifinals

North Pole 4, Kenai Central 2

Soldotna 10, Palmer 5

Saturday

Third place

Kenai Central 12, Palmer 5

Finals

Soldotna 23, North Pole 0