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Service continues dream season while Eagle River ends nightmare against South in CIC Tournament semifinals

by | May 24, 2024 | Baseball, Cover Story

Service’s Rilen Niclai motors around first on one of his two doubles. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

On a Service High baseball team stacked with senior all-stars, it was sophomore Rilen Niclai who stole the show Thursday night.

The superstar-in-the-making went 3-for-3 with two doubles and two RBIs, and then pitched the final two innings to nail down a 2-1 victory over Chugiak in the semifinals of the Cook Inlet Conference Tournament at Mulcahy Stadium.

Niclai took center stage as the top-seeded Cougars extended their 19-game unbeaten streak and reached the tournament’s title game for the first time after he and Hunter Christian outdueled Preston Rau on a night when pitching was paramount.

Christian carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning and went the first five frames before giving way to Niclai, who saved the game in more ways than one.

Niclai’s RBIs were his 25th and 26th of the season, a career high. With four more postseason games still to play, including three at state, he’s in position to best his brother’s total of 29 in 2023 and the CIC RBI record of 31 set in 2022 by South’s Oliver Brown, now playing at Holy Cross.

Niclai, a 6-foot-1, 170-pounder, started the game at shortstop and makes difficult plays look easy because of his range and arm strength. He made a crossbody throw on the move to end the third inning look like child’s play.

CIC Tournament
At Mulcahy Stadium
Thursday’s Semifinals

Service 2, Chugiak 1
Eagle River 4, South 3
Friday’s Games
5pm Third Place

#4 Chugiak (11-7-1) vs. #2 South (19-3)
7:30pm Championship
#3 Eagle River (14-6) vs. #1 Service (18-0-1)

Past CIC Tournament Champs
2023 – South 4, Chugiak 0
2022 – South 3, Eagle River 2
2021 – South 7, Eagle River 0

Niclai knocked in his big bro Coen with the winning run with two outs in the fifth inning after Coen singled and scored from first on Rilen’s hit-and-run extra-base knock to the gap in left centerfield.

Coen, a 6-foot-2, 213-pound catcher headed to the University of Oregon, is often lifted for a courtesy runner, but he stayed on the base paths when it mattered most. He was off with the pitch to Rilen and scored standing up.

Coen also showed off his rocket right arm behind the plate in the sixth inning when he picked off a runner at first base – the sixth time he’s erased a base runner in his last four CIC Tournament games.

Service first baseman Jake Rafferty reacts after a pickoff. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

The Nicali bros combined for five of the team’s six hits as they lead the charge against Rau, a senior right-hander and the league’s reigning Wade Blasingame Top Pitcher Award winner. Rau threw his third career complete game in as many years at the CIC Tournament after the two-time All-CIC first-team ace had CG wins as a sophomore and junior.

In the first inning, Coen singled, stole second and then was lifted for courtesy runner Keegan Lennox, who scored the game’s first run on Rilen’s single. Rilen doubled in the third inning and then again in a pivotal fifth inning.

Meanwhile, Christian was his usual dominant self. He ended the first, third and fifth innings with a strikeout and runner in scoring position. Earlier this month, he had a game with 15 Ks. On this night he had seven – half the total but just as effective as both were one-run wins.

Chugiak’s Sampson Young drove in Landon Luebke in the fourth inning with a two-out single that tied the game 1-1. The Mustangs will face South in the third-place game.

Chugiak 000 100 0 – 1 4 1
Service 100 010 x – 2 6 0
Chugiak – Rau and Young. Service – Christian, R. Niclai (6) and C. Niclai. W – Christian. L – Rau. SV – R. Niclai. 2B – R. Niclai (S) 2. 3B – None. HR – None.

Chugiak ace Preston Rau ready to rock. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Eagle River 4, South 3

Mr. Legion finally beat Mr. High School.

For the first time since legendary Legion figure Bill Lierman took over at Eagle River in 2021, the Wolves defeated Taylor Nerland and South in a matchup between the two winningest high school coaches in Alaska.

Thursday’s 4-3 come-from-behind victory snapped Eagle River’s 10-game losing streak to the Wolverines under Lierman and the team’s 17-game drought against South dating back to 2014.

It all went down at Mulcahy Stadium in the semifinals of the CIC Tournament, where third-seeded Eagle River scored all four runs across the fifth and sixth innings to knock off second-seeded South. This was the first time in four years an Alaska team not named Service or Chugiak beat South.

Eagle River’s Ryan Mullen puts a charge in one. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Jack Mullen doubled to lead off the sixth inning and eventually scored the winning run on a wild pitch.

Reigning CIC MVP Liam Lierman pitched a clean seventh inning to earn the save and end Eagle River’s misery while handing three-time defending conference champion South its first loss in seven games in CIC Tournament history.

It figures a Lierman was involved. Dad Bill – an eight-time Legion state champion (three as a player and five as head coach) and the CIC’s No. 2 wins leader at 151 (Nerland has 158) – managed the chess board nicely and his son Liam, a smooth southpaw, called checkmate.

Eagle River coach Bill Lierman (far left) makes a call to the bullpen. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Other heroes for the Wolves included Gage Rose, Gunner Mountcastle and Mullen. Rose pitched 3.1 innings and did not allow an earned run; Mountcastle gave his team a 3-2 lead with an infield single and made a nice catch in right field; Mullen hit a sac fly in the fifth inning and doubled and scored the winning run in the sixth.

Early on, it looked like a blueprint of how South wins games – solid pitching, clean defense and aggressive base running. The Wolverines plated a pair of runs in the third inning thanks to five of eight batters drawing walks. Kolby Jensen’s RBI base on balls made it 1-0 and a wild pitch with the bases loaded made it 2-0. Later, South tied the game 3-3 on a wild pitch.

The Wolverines are exceptional on the bases, where they pressure pitchers and capitalize on opponent’s errors, mental or otherwise.

South’s Carson Maltby bunts for a base hit. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

South starter Blake Peterson retired 11 straight after giving up a leadoff single and finished with five strikeouts in 5.2 innings. Reliever Trevor Maltby got out of a bases loaded jam to end the sixth inning.

Eagle River catcher Dalin Roberts reached base three times with a single and two walks. In two tournament games, he has been on base in six of seven plate appearances.

The Wolves advanced to Friday’s CIC Tournament title game against No. 1 seeded Service. Both teams will play for their first CIC Tournament title.

Eagle River 000 031 0 – 4 6 2
South 002 010 0 – 3 3 1
Eagle River – Mountcastle, Rose (3), Lierman (7) and Roberts. South – Peterson, Trev.Maltby (6), Dan.Feigner (7) and Jensen. W – Rose. L – Peterson. SV – Lierman. 2B – J. Mullen (ER). 3B – None. HR – None.

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