RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- Just a few weeks ago, Jaxin Larson was serving in Afghanistan with the Army National Guard 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry.

Sunday he was in Spooner celebrating a state amateur baseball title with the River Falls Fighting Fish.

“This doesn’t feel real,” he said. “A couple of weeks ago I was overseas and now I’m here. It’s too good to be true, honestly. It’s way better than I could have imagined.”

Larson and the rest of the 1-128th unit from River Falls returned to town last Friday, Aug. 14, after a 13-month deployment. After a family welcome-home celebration and dinner on the town, he immediately headed north to join his Fighting Fish teammates at the state semifinals in Hayward.

“I figured it was my last chance to get any baseball in until next summer and I’ve been looking forward to it for the last 13 months,” he said. “It’s been the best part of my summers since I was 6 years old.”

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Jaxin Larson, left, congratulates teammate Mitchell Feyereisen (9) in the dugout after Feyereisen scored during a three-run fifth inning to extend River Falls’ lead to 5-2 in their state semifinal game against the Hayward Hawks Sunday, Aug. 16, in Spooner. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
Jaxin Larson, left, congratulates teammate Mitchell Feyereisen (9) in the dugout after Feyereisen scored during a three-run fifth inning to extend River Falls’ lead to 5-2 in their state semifinal game against the Hayward Hawks Sunday, Aug. 16, in Spooner. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

A multi-sport athlete at River Falls High School and a stalwart on the Wildcat pitching staff before graduating in 2017, Larson enlisted in the Army National Guard in October 2018, just two weeks before his 20th birthday.

Last summer, in his second season with the Fighting Fish, he was off to a 3-0 start with a dazzling 1.43 earned run average when he got the call in mid-July that the 1-128 was being called up.

After training in Texas and a brief stop in Kuwait, the 1-128th spent the bulk of the past year in Afghanistan serving as a security element for the Army's 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade, and providing protection for key leader engagements and training between advisers, coalition forces, contractors and Afghan troops.

Even half-a-world away, Larson continued to stay close to the Fish, and said he was grateful to be able to follow their games on the River Falls YouTube channel.

“It was like a 10-hour time difference, so there were a couple times I woke up at like 5 a.m. and tuned in,” he said. “And then in Texas I watched them win the league tournament and I was just hoping I’d get back in time and it worked out great.”

Larson wasn’t able to play in the state tournament, but he suited up in his old No. 22 uniform, took part in pre-game warm-ups with his teammates and was in the dugout for all four games. The tournament organizers got wind of his story and he was honored by the crowds in both Hayward on Saturday and Spooner on Sunday before receiving an individual state championship plaque like the rest of his teammates after the Fish’s title win over Brill.

“To get to come back and win a state tournament with all my brothers and all my family? It’s too good to be true,” he said. “I still can’t believe it. It feels like I’m going to wake up soon.”

Larson said he spent many nights over the past year dreaming about being back in the United States and back on the baseball field. And it made him realize how lucky he was.

“How lucky we all are really,” he said. “A good day over there was better than any bad day here. There were a lot of times I’d just lay in my bed at night and just imagine myself back on the field and back here in the greatest country in the world. I don’t think anyone realizes how good we have it over here for sure.”