April 19 and May 24, 2013, were days that lived in infamy where American School In Japan right-hander Justin Novak was concerned.
On the first day, he took the loss in a 14-2 rout by Rikkyo Niiza. The second was even more devastating – a 1-0 defeat against Kubasaki in the semifinals of a Far East Division I Tournament most observers said ASIJ was a lock to win.
Novak and his returning teammates, six of them seniors, carried that memory with them, like fire in their bellies, all the way from the ashes of a disappointing 2013 to the best possible ending in 2014.
They ran the table, 27-0, and ASIJ won its second Far East D-I title in four years, blanking Kadena 3-0 in the final.
For his performance on the mound, at the plate and in the field, Novak edges out senior teammate Mizuki Shumsky for Stars and Stripes Pacific high school baseball Athlete of the Year honors.
“He’s certainly been the anchor for us,” coach John Seevers said of Novak, adding that he spoke at the school’s postseason banquet the other day and called Novak the team’s “go-to guy, the player you want on our side.”
Novak batted .476, had an on-base percentage of .566, a slugging percentage of .841, with five home runs and 32 RBIs. On the mound, he allowed 16 hits and four walks while striking out 46 in 30 innings. The Mustangs were pushed in six of their 27 games, winning 13 of them by at least 10 runs.
The closest any teams came to beating ASIJ were in the season opener, when Novak and the Mustangs avenged the semifinal loss to Kubasaki 2-1; on April 18, when ASIJ gained redemption against Rikkyo Niiza 10-8; and in the Far East final. Novak pitched and won all three games.
“The kids wanted those games badly,” Seevers said of the Kubasaki and Rikkyo Niiza games. “Those were two huge ones because those teams were our best competition.”
In the run-up to the Far East tournament, Seevers said he consulted with both Novak and Shumsky, the team’s top two pitching options, to set ASIJ’s rotation, and it was pretty much agreed that Shumsky would pitch the semifinal and Novak the championship if it got that far.
“Everybody kind of knew that going in,” Seevers said.
Shumsky shut down Nile C. Kinnick 12-0 in the semifinal, then it was Novak’s turn. He tossed a four-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts.
But two defensive plays also stood out.
With the bases loaded and one out against Kadena in the final, Kota Manning tried a squeeze bunt, which Novak fielded and tossed home to Kenji Yoshii for an out, then Yoshii threw to first baseman Ryan Glasenapp to end the inning.
In the seventh inning, Novak picked off Kadena’s Justin Sego, who’d just led off the inning with a double, ending the threat.
Now, Novak and Shumsky, who earned Far East Tournament MVP honors, move on to play Division I college baseball, Novak at Virginia, Shumsky at Miami (Ohio). “Both great kids, both great athletes,” Seevers said.
All-Far East baseball team: Mizuki Shumsky, John Yonamine, American School In Japan; Justin Sego, Cody Prince, Kadena; Tommy Warren, Renton Poole, Kubasaki; Daniel Ross, Nile C. Kinnick; Keiyl Sasano, Keanu Cruz, Zama.