There are two state spots up for grabs at this year’s Northern Lights Conference baseball tournament, and with 10 games on the schedule for each of the eight teams, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for ball teams to be tagged out.
The 2015 high school season was scheduled to begin Tuesday for Kenai Peninsula teams, but the season openers for Kenai and Soldotna was postponed to May 22. But while many of the nearby ballfields are not quite playable just yet, at least the teams have been able to get out of their high school gyms.
“We’ve been on the field off and on for about a week and a half,” said Kenai coach John Kennedy. “When the snow was hitting, it was wet, we weren’t on the field, but we’re about good to go.”
Kennedy said Wednesday would have been the earliest game the Kardinals have played on the Peninsula.
Homer coach Rich Sonnen said the early time outside has paid big dividends for his outfield staff.
“March was great, we were outside every day,” Sonnen said. “I feel like our outfielders are way ahead, because there’s not much you can do with them in the gym.”
Kodiak, last year’s top team out of the Southern Division, is tabbed once again by local coaches as the top team from the south.
“They’ve got a turf field down there and so they could be outside as early as January,” explained Soldotna coach Robb Quelland. “Their winter is not so much snow as it is cold and rain.”
The Northern Lights Conference tournament is May 28-30 at Houston High School, with the top two finishing teams punching their tickets to the state tournament, to be held June 4-6 at Mulcahy Stadium in Anchorage.
The Kards finished 3-6 last year in the regular season to grab the third tournament seed from the south, and if they wish to improve to a top-two seed, coach John Kennedy will have to figure out which lineup works best for his team.
“If we finish .500 this year, that’ll be awesome,” Kennedy said.
Kenai ultimately dropped out of the 2014 NLC tourney with two straight losses.
Kennedy, who returns for his fifth year as a coach, said Kenai is sitting at about 28 players between the varsity and JV squads, about the same as last year, and added that none of his guys are Legion AA players with the Twins in the summer. Most of them have never even pitched in a varsity contest before.
“We’re gonna be athletic, but experience will be game-time experience,” Kennedy said. “We’re gonna make mistakes, but I think we’ll work through that as a team, and that’s the best we can do.
“I’m hoping that with the older kids, they learn from their mistakes quicker.”
With a short bullpen to start out with, Kennedy said he will rely on his infield to step up and make the big plays when it counts.
With no exact positions set yet, the infield will see a rotating cast of Ellery Steffensen, Nate O’Lena and Paul Steffensen, with Connor Jones and Sam Combs at first base and Taylor Landry and Tanner Wortham at third. Kennedy added that Connor Johnson is looking like a starting catcher, and could be backed up by Devin Peterson.
On the mound, Kenai lost a pair of four-year letter winners in ace Dallas Pierren and its trusty backstop Miles Jones. Kennedy said Pierren and Robert Cockrell, who is also a former Kenai pitcher, have both come out to help the current crop of Kenai players.
Kennedy said this year’s Kenai pitching rotation will consist of returner Tim Zoda, Combs, O’Lena and Jones, who got in time on the mound last year at the JV level.
“It’s just experience we’re going to miss more than anything,” Kennedy said. “They were leaders.”
Kenai will face Homer on April 28 to officially open its season.
“We’re itching to play,” Kennedy said.
One of the founding fathers of the Stars baseball squad returns as head coach in 2015.
After finishing 2-7 in the 2014 regular season, the Stars will be getting Robb Quelland as head coach. Quelland coached SoHi from an upstart program to a state appearance from 2007 to 2011, before Roger Phillips took over the program. Quelland has continued to stay involved in the baseball community at the Legion and Little League levels, and will be joined this year by assistants Mike Griffin, Will Chervenak and Dr. Bob Ledda.
Quelland said his goal for the team is to return to state for the first time since 2011.
“We want to be competitive,” Quelland said. “And we want to finish the season with the same guys we started with.”
Quelland said he was happy to see what he called Soldotna’s largest turnout ever for the baseball team. With 27 names currently on the roster, the team has doubled in size. Fifteen of those players are incoming freshmen. Quelland said he attributes the massive turnout to the successful developmental programs that the Little League teams have constructed.
“It’s really nice,” he said. “These are kids that have played baseball and have been together for four or five years. They’ve got good game-time experience under their belts already.”
A key area the veteran coach hopes to see improvement in is hitting, and Quelland thinks the Stars have the power.
“Hitting is about baseball experience, and I think we match up well,” Quelland said. “We already have a lot of games under us, a lot of our kids are All-Stars in Soldotna Little League.”
Using the indoor batting cages and pitching machines that Soldotna High School has provided has helped speed the preseason training, which Quelland said has been huge. The Stars will get the opportunity to see where they stand today and tomorrow with games in Kodiak against the Bears.
Two seniors are returning for SoHi — Justice Miller and David Rue. Miller will be seeing time as a pitcher and infielder while Rue will be a catcher.
Starting on the mound will be Tyler Covey, Joey Becher, Calvin Hills and Miller, all of whom have played Legion ball. Quelland said there are currently seven players on the roster that have played for the Twins.
“Some of them have played around 40 games a year together,” he said.
Quelland added that Terrance Slats and Mason Prior will be seeing time in the outfield, while the full lineup will be determined later after the freshmen class get its turn on field. Quelland said he believes he’s got a core of underclassmen that could really make an impact.
“This weekend will be a good test,” he said.
The Mariners also head into 2015 with a change in head coach. This year, Rich Sonnen will be the one manning the Homer dugout.
Sonnen said in order to help get the year off on the right foot and spark a solid campaign, he brought in former major leaguer Todd Coburn to run a hitting camp. Coburn was a part of the Philadelphia Phillies organization over 15 years ago, following an appearance in the 1993 Division II College Baseball World Series with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Coburn also served as an assistant coach for the Anchorage Bucs in the Alaska Baseball League. Coburn has been a professional baseball instructor for the past 10 years.
“I felt like our offense may be a weak point, so I was able to get Todd to help us,” Sonnen said. “That helped us a lot.”
An assistant coach for the past four years, Sonnen said he’s also learned a lot on being a coach from former Homer head coaches Mark Putney and Lary Kuhns.
“I learned a lot from them about running a varsity-level program,” Sonnen said. “When I first came on as an assistant, there was no way I’d be ready, but after four years, I feel pretty good about stepping into the spot.”
Sonnen will be joined by assistants Steve Fuson and Mark Brinster, as well as getting part time help from former players Tommy Bowe and Willy Deaver. Bowe is one of the biggest holes from last year’s roster that Sonnen will have to fill this season.
“We’ll definitely miss his bat,” Sonnen said, referring to Bowe’s batting prowess.
With their first game slated for April 28 against Kenai, the Mariners are getting the bulk of their team back, including nine seniors. Sonnen said with six seniors and three juniors in the current lineup, he feels confident about grabbing a top-end seed for the NLC tournament and making a charge at a state tournament bid.
“We’d like to try and battle it out for the top two,” Sonnen said. “But you just never know what the bigger schools will have. But (nine seniors) is huge for us, we’ve never had that many upperclassman.”
The infield will consist of Brandon Beachy, J.J. Sonnen, Michael Swoboda and Owen Delehanty, while the pitching rotation will likely look like junior Kyle Johnson, senior Sheldon Hutt, senior Riley Donich, Beachy and Sonnen.