A no-show is a no-go for Kenai Peninsula baseball teams this year.
One year after Kenai Central, Soldotna and Homer all missed out on the state tournament, the peninsula squads return determined as ever to get to state, where they own a combined zero state titles in each of their short histories. The closest a peninsula team has come to winning a state crown was a runner-up for Homer in 2005.
This year, they will have to go through a different looking Northern Lights Conference. The Alaska Schools Activities Association dropped the two divisions, North and South, and all nine teams will now compete in one conference, with first-round matchups being decided by the one through eight seeds. The bottom two seeds will decide the eight seed with a play-in game.
It’s made the path to state a little trickier.
“That’s a huge change in play this year in our conference,” said SoHi head coach Robb Quelland. “It’s much more competitive, every game will count, and teams will not be able to relax at all.”
Homer head coach Rich Sonnen echoed Quelland’s thoughts, adding that the days of finishing among the top three in the division are gone. A top-three finish in the regular season among nine teams now will require a complete and balanced team.
“You always hoped to get one of the top two in the South, but now a top two among nine teams will be tougher,” Sonnen explained. “It’s going to make the tournament a little more interesting, it could be a little longer road to come through.”
The nine teams that will inhabit the conference include Soldotna, Kenai, Homer, Kodiak, Colony, Wasilla, Palmer, Houston and Grace Christian.
Homer will host the 2018 NLC tournament May 24 through 26. Sonnen said he believes it will be the first time since 2001 that Homer has hosted the region tourney.
Kenai’s new head coach, Luke Oliver, said he cannot yet pinpoint who will be on top, but believes the system is better suited for his Kardinals.
“It plays to our benefit that all nine teams play into the tournament,” he said. “I told our guys if we’re peaking at regions, I like our chances.”
Add to that the return of the pitch count rules that were introduced last year, and the fight for two state spots becomes incredibly fierce. In 2017, pitch count rules were instituted that required pitchers one day of rest after 30 pitches, two days rest after 55, three days after 80 and four days with 105 and above.
The pitch count made for some intriguing drama at the 2017 NLC tournament as every team’s star pitchers became unavailable when team’s needed them most.
“We just have to really watch it,” Quelland said. “Obviously we’re utilizing more pitchers than in the past, and you just don’t get to utilize your ‘horse’ like you’re able to. Now you really have to be smart and careful about it.”
Oliver said he won’t be letting his staff get out of hand anytime soon.
“I will have my pitchers on a short pitch count, and it’ll probably be pitch by committee,” he said.
Of course, if the Kardinals, Stars or Mariners can nab a great seed, they still have to knock off Wasilla, winners of four straight Southcentral Conference titles.
“That’s always the question,” Sonnen said about the Warriors’ dominance. “They sit up there and that’s everybody’s goal. I’d like to think they’re weaker this year than they usually are, but I doubt they are.”
SoHi came close to pulling the upset last year, losing a 3-2 semifinal to Wasilla in walk-off fashion on a throwing error, but Quelland said his guys are returning with a focus on redeeming themselves.
“We’ve just got to play better baseball,” Quelland said. “We’ve run with them the last three years, we played them in one of the toughest games of regions and lost by one run.”
The following is a closer look at what to expect from peninsula squads:
A familiar name steps in this year to take over the Kenai baseball program. Luke Oliver has taken over from the departed Steve Nimcheski, who took a job as a fisheries biologist in Michigan with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Oliver is the 30-year-old son of longtime peninsula baseball coach Gary Oliver, who still keeps an eye on all things baseball in town. Luke Oliver is a 2006 KCHS graduate who helped coach pitchers last year, but now the top coaching job is his. He will be joined by assistants Ryan Moss and Dallas Pierren.
“I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring and try for the job,” Oliver said.
Oliver was an outfielder and pitcher for the Kenai Legion Twins in the days before KCHS had a high school program. He played ball at Wayland Baptist University (Texas) before hanging up his competitive spikes and heading home.
With roughly 20 kids on the team currently, Oliver said the object of early season practices has been getting in the reps needed for a competitive season. The team finally got outside on the Kenai Little League fields Monday, which Oliver said was a welcome relief.
“We thought the potential was there to not ever get on a field until the Valley trip this weekend,” he said.
The Kards open their schedule at Colony on Thursday and Wasilla on Friday. Kenai’s home opener is May 4 against Kodiak.
The Kardinals would like to forget a tough 2017 campaign. Kenai started hot with six straight wins, then fizzled late and was outscored 21-1 in two losses at the region tournament.
“I told the players, my expectations are that we’ll be as good as we can be by the time regions comes around,” Oliver said. “We’re working on fundamentals and trying to improve to get better and better, and see what happens when regions comes around.”
Kenai will need to replace several big names, particularly Paul Steffensen, a 2017 Kenai grad that has since gone on to blaze the basepaths in college. As of early April, Steffensen was batting .400 after 39 games at Mesa Community College in Arizona, and strung together a 26-game hitting streak that included two five-hit games.
This year’s crew includes a pitching rotation consisting of junior Knox Amend, senior Manny Noriega, freshman Harold Ochea and senior Carlos Caballero. Catcher duties for Kenai will be split between junior Andrew Carver and senior Seth Wynch.
Beyond that, Oliver said the infield and outfield spots are to be determined.
“We’re throwing everybody in and seeing where they could land,” he said.
Oliver said the hitting lineup will see some power from Amend, Noriega, freshman Caleb Smith and Ochea.
“I think this team has some pretty good potential,” he said. “We’ll see where they want to take the team and what effort they want to put forth.”
Unlike Kenai, the Stars are bursting with experienced talent that has been there, done that. Eight seniors lead the 2018 Stars.
“This is that amazing freshman class we had four years ago,” Quelland said. “That really says a lot about the dedication of these players, and this is the year to make some noise.”
The class of 2018 went to state as sophomores, but twice missed the championship tournament on close calls, including last year, when SoHi lost two days in a row in walk-off fashion.
“It was just mental toughness,” Quelland said. “We lost it to mental toughness, errors cost us.”
Eventual region champions Wasilla escaped with a 3-2 win over SoHi on a throwing error in the 2017 NLC semis, then SoHi lost 6-5 to Colony in the second-place game, ending the Stars’ season and state chances. The Stars had led 5-0 after two innings in that game, but the Knights roared back.
Quelland said for a team that has been third or better at the NLC tourney the previous three seasons, the time to win is now.
“They have that burn and desire to do it,” he said.
In his fourth year in his current stint as SoHi head coach, Quelland — who will work with assistant coaches Kenny Griffin, Austin Asp and Terrance Slats — said a late start to outdoor practices hasn’t slowed the Stars too much. Soldotna got outside for the first time last Thursday. SoHi opens its season Friday night against Colony.
Returning All-Conference catcher Cody Quelland will catch for a stacked pitching rotation that includes seniors Logan Smith, Brandon Crowder, Hunter Thompson, Caleb Spence and Jake Marcuson, along with junior Jeremy Kupferschmid. Thompson is a 6-foot-6 power arm that Quelland said will likely throw in relief, and Spence combined on a no-hitter his sophomore year.
When not on the mound, the staff will get time on the field. Smith will see time at first base, while Crowder and Marcuson will battle for the hot corner at third. Junior David Michael will be an infielder and utility player, while Kupferschmid is tasked with manning centerfield.
Quelland also noted that sophomore Tanner Ussing could show up later this season if a shoulder injury heals up in time.
“We’re very athletic,” he said. “It’s one of those nice things to have, these kids are athletic and can play multiple spots.”
The loss of two seniors typically does not amount to much of a drop in performance, but with Homer’s school size, the Mariners cannot afford to lose many players.
Sonnen, however, is feeling optimistic with his returning starters.
“Looking at our team right now, I’d say top three is attainable,” he said. “We’ve got to have all things go right along the way, but we have the pitching depth and personnel.”
Homer’s 12-game regular season schedule is slated to get under way Tuesday in a nonconference meeting against SoHi, with its first real conference game Thursday at Grace Christian.
In his seventh year with the Homer baseball program, and fourth as head coach, Sonnen welcomes back a slew of upperclassmen that have made strides over the previous year.
Back is starting pitcher Adam Brinster, a senior who missed much of 2017 with a shoulder injury but got time with the Legion Twins. Brinster will also add power to the hitting lineup.
Joining Brinster in the rotation is senior Douglas Dean, sophomore Mose Hayes and senior Joe Ravin.
“Joe and Adam have been playing a long time and are excellent leaders,” he said. “They make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Catching duties will fall on junior Seth Adkins, another powerful hitter who could also see time on the mound.
When not pitching, Brinster and Dean will likely split time at first, while Ravin will see the most time at shortstop and senior Kyle Wells will man third. Seniors Landon Bunting and Spencer Warren will patrol the Homer outfield, while Sonnen is yet to decide who will join them.