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East T-birds are state softball champions thanks to consistent bats and stout defense

by | Jun 2, 2024 | Cover Story, Prep Spotlight, Softball

East shows off its new state title. Photo by Chanda File/Alaska Sports Report

Consistent bats, stout defense and pitching prowess carried the East Anchorage Thunderbirds to a state championship Saturday with a 7-5 win over the Chugiak Mustangs in Fairbanks.

The T-birds (24-2) are a formidable opponent on an average day, but when all their elements are locked in – stopping them becomes a Herculean task.

These two teams are more than familiar with each other, having faced off six times since the season began just over a month ago. Two of those matchups took place on Saturday alone, with East shutting out Chugiak 5-0 in in a morning semifinal at the South Davis Complex fields.

East pitcher Sela Rodriguez said the repeated bouts with the Mustangs required her to pull out different pitches in order to keep batters on their toes.

“I think it’s all about adjusting in, out, up or down,” said Rodriguez. “Take what you’ve learned from the previous game and then put it into what you got now.”

Rodriguez tallied 10 strikeouts in the title game, allowing nine hits and giving up five walks. She struck out at least one batter in every inning and secured two outs in four of seven innings – either by throwing Ks or fielding bunts.

She was backed up by East’s stellar defense, which committed just one error and held Chugiak scoreless in four of the seven innings. Player of the game Penina Tali’s arm was locked in on her throws to first base and right fielder Isabella Jones rocketed a throw into Villafuerte at second base to get a crucial leadoff out in the fifth inning.

ASAA/First National Bank
Division I State Tournament
At South Davis Complex

Title Game
East 7, Chugiak 5
All-Tournament Team
Sela Rodriguez, East
Makayla Anderson, West Valley
Torri Jolin, Chugiak
Aubree Ogee, Dimond
Alexis Congdon, Colony
Millie Wurst, South
Mamie Sanford, East
Madison Inderrieden, West Valley
Valley Wakefield, East
Megan Traxinger, Chugiak
Academic Award – Chugiak
Sportsmanship Award – Chugiak

The Mustangs were first on the board in the first inning, when Chugiak player of the game Brooklyn McCormick drove a single into shallow right field, sending Yanessa Rodriguez home for a 1-0 lead.

East shortstop Aaliyah Villafuerte was ready in the leadoff position, getting the team’s offense started with a leadoff double. Villafuerte was caught at home on a well-executed tag by McCormick, but she successfully started the momentum for the T-birds, as Isabella Lyons quickly tied up the score with an RBI single.

“I hit the ball, and everybody else hit the ball after I hit the ball,” Villafuerte said.

Rodriguez credited coach Virginia Griffith with teaching the team to start a “new cycle” throughout the batting order, even if their top hitters weren’t connecting at the plate.

And with everyone on the lineup hitting, lifting the trophy was truly a team effort. The six through nine-slot batters’ ability to get on base was key to the win, as they accounted for five of East’s seven runs. Player of the game Penina Tali scored two and Valley Wakefield, Darcee Isidoro and Aulelei Wong each scored one.

“All of our middle and our bottom of the lineup really did step up when it came to making a new cycle and just rallying,” said Rodriguez.

But Chugiak (17-5) was quick to remind the T-birds that no lead is safe with teams of this caliber. At the top of the third, Mustang senior Megan Traxinger sent one into orbit after launching a three-run homer over the centerfield fence that gave Chugiak a 4-3 Chugiak.

Chugiak’s Megan Traxinger hit the title game’s only home run. Photo by Signal Stone

“I was in the zone for that one,” she said. “The thing about home runs is you see them coming in, and when you hit them, you don’t even swing that hard. They come off the bat perfectly, and for that one, it came in clutch.”

Traxinger was instrumental to Chugiak’s offense – along with her home run, she also delivered a leadoff single in the seventh inning and was brought home by Isabel Sjostrand’s double.

“I was up there and I was hungry for a hit,” Traxinger said about the last-minute comeback effort in her final game as a Mustang. “That’s going to be something I’m going to carry with me for the rest of my life. Ending my high school career with that single right up the middle, hard hit ball, it’s definitely the way to go out.”

Despite the loss, Chugiak’s defense deserves props for holding East scoreless in the game’s final three innings. First baseman Aubree Sims snatched up a grounder and dove back to the base in the fourth inning, getting there just in time to pick off the third out in a row. In the next inning, she caught a fly ball with the tip of her glove in a move that was so impressive, even the batter stopped to congratulate her.

Torri Jolin pitched the majority of the game for the Mustangs, pitching 38 strikes out of just 50 total pitches, giving out zero walks, four hits and one run, and picking up two strikeouts. Shelby Strange and Abigail Lanehart each came out in relief for one inning. Strange walked one, allowing four hits and two runs; and Lanehart struck out one, allowing three hits and four runs.

East’s Penina Tali with a mighty cut. Photo by Signal Stone

Heading into the state tournament, East third-baseman Tali said she tried to make sure the entire team kept their heads up this week, coming out of the team’s unexpected elimination from last weekend’s Cook Inlet Conference Tournament.

“One thing we did, we spoke life into each other before each (state) game,” she said.

“They got in a circle and did affirmations together,” added coach Griffith. “Like, ‘I’m gonna hit the ball, I’m gonna watch the ball and not make an error, I’m gonna pitch strikes, I’m gonna catch the ball.’”

While her players feigned embarrassment, she reiterated, “You guys are state champs. Visualize it, and you become it.”

Chugiak 1 0 3 0 0 0 1 – 5 9 3
East 1 2 4 0 0 0 x – 7 11 1
Chugiak – T. Jolin, S. Strange, A. Lanehart and B. McCormick. East – S. Rodriguez and V. Wakefield. W – Rodriguez. L – Jolin. 2B: I. Sjostrand (C), S. Strange (C), A. Villafuerte (E). 3B: None. HR: M. Traxinger (C).

Story made possible by:

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