Kenai Peninsula baseball teams are hungry to get back to the postseason.
It has been since 2012 that a prep baseball squad from the peninsula has made the trip to the state playoffs, but the knocking on the door is getting louder.
The Southcentral Conference that Kenai Central, Soldotna and Homer are a part of gets two state berths. Last year, it was conference champs Wasilla and runner-up Kodiak getting the spots. Both teams combined in the regular season to go 17-3 in the conference.
The Soldotna Stars made it to the conference title game last year, but lost to Wasilla 11-1 before getting knocked out completely in the tournament second-place game with a 5-2 loss to Kodiak.
After slogging through back-to-back 2-7 conference campaigns in 2013 and 2014, the Stars rebuilt and improved to 5-5 last year. That 2015 squad featured a lot of young players that have since added another year of experience to their belts, meaning the notable absence of peninsula teams at the state tournament may not last much longer.
“We look good on paper,” said an optimistic Soldotna head coach Robb Quelland. “We’re very fortunate to have the staffing we have and a very experienced and varsity level team.
“We’re very excited with the progress they’ve made over the past year.”
Seven of SoHi’s current varsity roster also got valuable time playing with the Legion Twins last summer, either with the AA or A squads. Other teams and coaches are noticing the growing results as well.
“Soldotna is loaded,” said Kenai coach John Kennedy. “A lot of their kids play Legion, so they should be good.”
The Kardinals finished a meager 1-9 in the Southcentral Conference a year ago, and only had a few players out for Legion ball, while Homer’s prep squad only had one member play for the Twins.
However, Kennedy said the return of several heavy hitters has him excited to see how the Kards stack up against the rest of the competition.
“We fight every year, we always have,” he said. “Only time will tell.”
Homer coach Rich Sonnen said his lone Legion member from last year’s Mariners team graduated, but a few rookies from the 2015 Twins will make appearances for the high school team.
“This year, we have six that played Legion,” Sonnen said. “Two on double-A and four from single-A.”
Homer’s baseball program finished 5-5 in conference action last spring, tied with SoHi. The Mariners won the tiebreak with a better division record, which only includes games against South division teams.
Kenai Central will be hosting the region tournament this year, which will split time out at Coral Seymour Memorial Park and the Kenai Little League fields on May 26 through 28.
Time outside has done wonders for the three programs as well. Instead of being cooped up inside cramped gyms while the snow slowly melts away, a mild winter and spring has allowed the Kards, Stars and Mariners to get crucial time practicing fielding plays on natural grass for several weeks already.
“Since the soccer games have been going, we’ve been on turf,” Kennedy said. “The (Little League) field’s in good shape, and today we were doing split practices, one on the field and one on the turf.”
Quelland said SoHi began work in the gym in mid-February, and has been outside for two weeks.
“Weather has been good, this is the earliest year I’ve been outside on a dry field,” he said.
Sonnen said the use of Homer High School’s turf football field has been big for the Mariners, mostly because the baseball field has been a casualty of persistent showers.
“The infield’s wet still, so the turf gives us a chance to work our outfielders,” Sonnen said.
The following is a closer look at each peninsula team:
As the most recent peninsula squad to appear at state, the Kardinals come into the year on the rebound off a few down seasons. The No. 4 seed from last year’s Southcentral Conference is looking to improve upon its 1-9 conference record.
Coach Kennedy, who enters his sixth year playing a coaching role with the Kardinals, said he will try anything to put the team in a position to make the postseason.
“Our thing right now is to work on improving and getting better,” Kennedy said. “It’s all down to what happens at the region tournament.”
Kennedy said inexperience will be the team’s biggest hurdle this spring, as much of the team gets busy in the summer when the Legion AA Twins shift into gear. It means the high school season is the only time that many players get time on the diamond.
“I think we have a little more talent than last year, so we’ll see who steps up and fills the gaps,” he said.
The Kards are sitting with a 22-man roster, several players down from the past two seasons, but many of those members are key cogs in the Kenai machine.
Leading the charge is junior Paul Steffensen, a returning all-conference pitcher and infielder. Fellow pitcher and middle infielder Connor Jones returns for his senior campaign after struggling last season with a foot injury, and Taylor Landry is back as a pitcher and utility player in just his second season on the team.
A versatile junior class is headlined by Gavin Petterson and Steven Norvelle, and a pair of sophomores in Jakeb O’Brien and Levi Mese will make their mark in the outfield. Mese also doubles as a first baseman.
“The goal is to do well, and obviously, we’d like to win the region,” Kennedy said.
And for those superstitious folk, 2012 was the only year that Kenai made a state appearance, and the Kards clinched that berth at home in the region tournament. This year’s region tourney is to be played in Kenai.
The Stars have seen one of their biggest turnouts this season with 25 players. In comparison, the program’s first year of existence in 2007 saw only 12 to 14 members.
Coach Quelland returns for his second year as head coach of the Stars following a 2015 season that finished 5-5 in conference play. Quelland said a strong JV program will help to piece together the ever-evolving varsity squad, something that he credited Mike “Papa” Griffin with developing.
“It takes a long time for players to buy into our system,” he said. “It comes down to having a dedicated coaching staff and the dedication of players, and I think that’s developed into one of the elite teams of the state.”
Quelland spent four years as an assistant with SoHi from 2007 through 2010, and was a part of the 2008 group that notched the inaugural state berth. Quelland said this current squad reminds him of that previous statebound team. SoHi also made state in 2011, the most recent of its trips.
With five freshman on last year’s team, Quelland said no other conference opponent had that kind of youth.
“We took over this program last year, and it was kind of a rebuilding year,” he said. “We picked up where some of the other coaches left off, and they left it in good shape.”
A large junior class has since morphed into a solid senior group, and all four have Legion experience.
“We have a phenomenal senior class, it’s second to none in the state,” Quelland said.
Leading the charge is senior pitching ace Joey Becher, who finished with a 2-2 starting record last year and delivered 29 strikeouts in 25 1-3 innings through seven games, including two one-run contests.
“He’s our senior workhorse, and personally I think he’s one of the best pitchers in the state,” Quelland said. “He’s got good command of about four pitches, and had good speed differential and great command of the strike zone.”
Joining Becher on the mound will be junior Matthew Daugherty, and behind home plate will be senior captain Kenny Griffin, who returns from attending school on the East Coast to complete his senior year with the Stars as starting catcher.
Fellow seniors Calvin Hills, a versatile infielder, and center fielder Mason Prior will round out the outgoing class. Infielder and catcher Bubba Quelland, utility players Caleb Spence and Brandon Crowder and outfielder Hunter Thompson all comprise the talented sophomore class.
The addition of left fielder Kolten Wilson — a Montana transfer that has experience playing on championship teams — will boost SoHi’s chances.
The Mariners have not been to state since 2009. Last year, Homer finished the regular season as the top peninsula team with a 5-5 conference record, 7-6 overall, good for second from the Southern Division.
“The goal is the same as last year,” Sonnen said.
Sonnen said he currently has 19 players on his roster, a list that saw the disappearance of nine graduated seniors.
“We’re a young team, and we have a tough road schedule to start with,” Sonnen said, referencing the early slate of road games. The Mariners will face Kodiak, Kenai, SoHi, Houston and Palmer before returning home for a matchup against SoHi on May 10.
“It is what it is,” Sonnen said. “Our JV soccer games use our baseball outfield, so it’s just coordinating.”
Homer will continue to enjoy the arm of pitching ace Kyle Johnson on the mound. Johnson notched valuable time as a Twins player last summer.
Joining Johnson as seniors on the team is catcher Greg Smith, who doubles as pitcher when Johnson isn’t dealing. Sophomore Adam Brinster, another Legion A Twins player, will do work as a first baseman and pitcher, and sophomore Joe Ravin will get time as short top and second baseman.
“It’s always pitching and defense that wins,” Sonnen explained. “That’s what we’ve been focused on. We’re a young team, so we’re going to have to battle all those areas.”
Sonnen said he expects good things from senior Michael Swoboda, who returns as Homer’s top hitter.