“Wait Till Next Year” is a famous baseball book published in 1997 by historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin about the 1950s’ Brooklyn Dodgers’ quest, year after year, to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series.
But it’s probably also the refrain rambling around in the heads of most every Jackson Giant about now.
“I think with state being at home [in 2023] we have a really good shot at taking it,” said pitcher and third baseman Aaron Huggins, who was named second-team all-state last week. “We’ll have nine seniors, so it’s definitely going to be exciting.”
Huggins’ dad, Giants Manager Jason Huggins, who’s led the program since 2010, couldn’t have been more pleased last week.
“They played so well,” Jason Huggins said of his 2022 AA American Legion team. “I’m so proud of them. We continue to cause chaos at state. That’s what we do.”
The Giants’ 2021 squad won just 14 games against 43 losses, but the 2022 team won its 30th game on July 25 when it counted the most, beating the higher-seeded Laramie Rangers 9-8 on opening day of the Wyoming Legion AA State Tournament in Sheridan.
The sixth-seeded Giants fell back to reality the next day, losing 13-3 to the second-seeded Gillette Riders, and thus faced elimination in their game against the fifth-seeded Casper Oilers on July 27. But Jackson survived in thrilling fashion, coming from 2-0 down to tie the game and then win it 3-2 when Lukas Gralund was waved home all the way from first on an errant throw by the Casper pitcher.
That earned the Giants a date last Thursday with the state’s top team, the Cheyenne Sixers, winners of the last two AA titles and 18 of the last 21. In short, Wyoming’s answer to the 1950s Yankees.
A win and the 31-37 Giants would advance to Friday’s championship round and a rematch with the Riders on Friday morning to set up what would have been a rematch with Cheyenne on Friday afternoon.
When Jackson’s Matt Fisher, who led the team in RBIs this season with 55, smashed a three-run homer in the top of the first, all was still possible. The Giants, without a single high school graduate on their team, played fearlessly, as if they knew they belonged among the final three teams in the tourney.
“I think our kids, over a season, continued to battle,” manager Huggins said. “We were constantly playing the best teams and they just found ways to win [at state]. That’s huge for next year.”
Alas, a win over the Sixers — pitching a college pitcher, Ben Bohlmann, the entire game — was not to be. Cheyenne came back in the bottom of the first and tied the game 3-3. Then it became a pitchers’ duel, Bohlmann against Ethan Garner of the Giants. Garner has yet to start his junior year at Madison High School in Rexburg, Idaho, yet was named first-team all-state last week, mainly for his play at the plate, leading the Giants with a .417 batting average, 83 hits (including 28 doubles) and a .613 slugging percentage.
Garner, spelling fellow first-team all-stater Trayson Kostial in relief, pitched an impressive game, including four strikeouts. His change-up pitch had the more experienced Sixers baffled for most of four innings, but then Cheyenne’s own first-team all-stater, Zack Costopoulos, knocked in a run in the bottom of the fourth, sealing the win for the Sixers in the bottom of the sixth with a two-run homer.
But Garner and the rest of the Giants were more than OK with their 2-2 performance in Sheridan.
“I thought it was a really successful season,” said Garner, 16. “We got 31 wins and our goal was 30. We balled all season. Our goal is to win state [next year], and I think we have a good chance.”
The state AA tournament will be played at Giants Field in Jackson next summer, and the Giants fully plan to be there on the tourney’s final, not penultimate, day.
“I felt like just going into that [state tournament], we felt like we could do that,” said Mason Wright, the giant’s southpaw pitcher and center fielder who will be a senior at Teton High School in Driggs, Idaho, this fall. “It just makes me look forward to next season.”
Wright was also named second-team all-state last week. He’s one of many reasons manager Huggins is beyond excited about the Giants’ 2023 prospects. Jackson has never won a AA state title since bumping up from single A in 2012, but next summer just might be the year.
Not only do the four all-state players — Garner, Kostial, Aaron Huggins and Wright — return, so does everyone else.
Kostial, who also attends Madison high in Rexburg, had a stellar season at shortstop and also showed promise as a pitcher toward the end of the year. In fact, Huggins had so much confidence in him that he started Kostial against Cheyenne in that final game.
“I was pretty nervous there,” said Kostial, who gave up three runs in the bottom of the first inning as the Sixers tied the score. But Huggins stood behind his decision. “He gave us two strong innings. That’s what we asked him to do,” the manager said.
It was Kostial’s bat that earned the 17-year-old first-team all-state honors. He led the Giants in home runs (seven) and tied with Wright for most triples (five). He had the team’s second-best batting average at .374 and was third in RBIs with 49. He knocked in 67 hits, including 19 doubles, scored 53 runs and had a .491 on-base percentage. He also led the team with 129 assists at shortstop and turned 13 double plays.
“It was pretty exciting,” Kostial said of being named to the first team. “I’ve been working really hard, so it’s good to see it paying off.”
Aaron Huggins and Wright were the Giants go-to starting pitchers all season. Huggins had seven wins and five losses as a starter, and Wright was 6-4. Huggins also batted .255 on the season, knocking in 41 runs on 41 hits, including eight doubles.
Wright had 49 strikeouts and 11 saves on the mound. He also had the team’s third-best batting average at .340, was second in RBIs with 50 and had a .510 slugging percentage.
Also returning for the Giants next year is catcher Ayden Gralund, a second-team all-state selection in 2021. Gralund hit .306 this season, with 60 hits, had 31 RBIs and scored 47 runs.
His brother, first baseman Lukas, is always a threat to hit one deep. Lukas Gralund had six home runs and three triples this season and a stellar .956 fielding percentage.
Fisher not only returns with his 55 RBIs, but his .338 batting average, his 72 hits and 62 runs scored.
Xander Witt brings back his seven wins as a starting pitcher, including a team-leading 53 strikeouts. Witt also had a .960 fielding percentage, 41 hits and scored 40 runs.
Other returners of note in 2023 will be infielder Bridger Hammond, who plays both second and third base and had a team-leading 14 double plays; pitcher Owen Khanna, who came on strong at the end of the season as a reliable starter and also hit .279 at the plate; and pitcher Wylie Wilkes, who tossed 39 strikeouts on the season.