If recent history is any indication of what to expect at the Southcentral Conference baseball tournament, then peninsula teams should be licking their chops this weekend.
In the nine-team tournament that starts today at Redington and Houston high schools, teams from Soldotna, Kenai Central and Homer will be looking to spoil the party. None of the three schools were able to secure a top-five seeding — although SoHi took the brunt of misfortune by finishing last in a three-way tiebreaker for fourth.
However, a bad seeding didn’t stop the Palmer Moose from busting up the bracket last May, when the seventh-seeded Moose walked off with the Southcentral Conference title and a spot to state. In fact, neither of the top two teams entering the 2018 tournament were able to secure one of the two automatic bids to state.
The tournament sends the top two finishing teams to the state tournament. The championship game is 7 p.m. Friday night, and the loser of that game will face the last team standing from the losers-out bracket for the second automatic ticket to state Saturday at noon.
Soldotna finished 4-4 in conference play to grab the No. 6 seed, and will get its region tourney started today at 1 p.m. with a meeting with No. 3 Kodiak.
The Homer Mariners finished 3-5 in league play to grab the No. 7 seed and will face No. 2 Colony today at 4 p.m.
Kenai Central finished 1-7 in conference play to get the No. 8 seed and will play Redington in a play-in game today at 10 a.m. The winner will move on to face top-seeded Wasilla, which finished a perfect 8-0 in region play.
Soldotna head coach Robb Quelland said the seeding positions don’t matter to him and the team, which is rolling into the tournament looking cleaner and crisper than the SoHi team that began the season.
“We’re probably playing the best baseball we have all year,” Quelland said. “We showed last week that we finally got it together, we got our stuff together and figured out where our lineup is strong. Our defense is strong and our pitching is strong.”
SoHi lost out on a three-way tie in the standings to Palmer and Grace Christian after recording two losses to Grace and splitting a pair of games with Palmer this season.
SoHi went 0-3 against the Bears this season, first losing 6-5 to Kodiak in an April tournament, then falling 5-4 and 9-6 on Kodiak’s home turf in early May.
Quelland said he feels confident in turning the tables on Kodiak after three closes losses, but it’s likely going to come down to pitching.
“Every team has one or two guys, and if you get that guy, it’s a hard game,” he said. “If you get past him, then you’ll be getting other teams’ second or third guy.
“We’re built for the tournament, we have three or four guys that can go.”
The Stars have gotten through the regular season relying on the arms of senior Jeremy Kupferschmid, Tanner Ussing and Chris Jaime. Quelland said while Kupferschmid has provided a lot of innings of reliable pitching, Ussing and Jaime have been pleasant surprises in the rotation.
Ussing had been recovering from an injury while the younger Jaime has earned his way into the fold with solid pitching. Davey Belger and Brennen Werner have also gotten in games this year on the mound, but Quelland said he wants to see his starters pitch efficiently and deep into games.
In their batting lineup, the Stars will rely on big bats from Kupferschmid and senior David Michael, who plays at shortstop. The 1-2 punch of Kupferschmid and Michael have been tough outs this year, and Quelland said they’ve been backed up by an improving cast of names such as Ussing, Jacob Boze and Trapper Thompson.
The Homer baseball team may not have the region record to show for it, but the Mariners do have something else on their side — the team is hoping to become the second straight No. 7 seed to upset the bracket for a Southcentral Conference championship, just like Palmer did last year.
“I use that for motivation,” said Homer head coach Rich Sonnen. “Try to keep the guys positive, hope for an upset along the line.”
But first, Homer has to contend with second-seeded Colony. In their lone meeting this year, the Mariners lost 7-0 to the Knights on May 11.
Sonnen said he’s uncertain if Homer has the depth to cruise through the field, but for the Mariners, it’s all hands on deck.
“We plan every game like there’s no tomorrow,” he said. “There’s no saving guys.”
Sonnen said in the loss to Colony, he saw his team putting the ball in play, but the Knights defense was gobbling up everything for outs.
It was the same way against Palmer earlier in the year, Sonnen said, when Homer left the bases loaded in the final inning and lost by one.
“We were just a little short,” he said. “But who knows? Maybe we’ll get on a roll at the right time like Palmer last year.”
Homer enters the tournament with momentum after toppling Kodiak 12-2 last weekend in a regular season game. Sonnen said he hopes to see the hot sticks continue, namely lower lineup names like Koda Wood and Austin Dash.
If the lower end of the lineup can get on base, Sonnen said the top batters like Harrison Metz, Austin Ceccarelli, Seth Adkins and Mose Hayes could have a field day.
Metz, Hayes, Adkins and Cecceralli also make up the core of the Homer pitching rotation, and Sonnen said the Mariners will need quick innings out of them to move through the tournament.
“They’re pretty consistent producers,” he said.
For the Kenai Kardinals, who must win a play-in game with Redington to match up with No. 1 Wasilla, it all comes down to the old cliche of “taking one game at a time.”
And as one of the bottom seeds, Kenai can play with nothing to lose. That’s what makes head coach Luke Oliver confident the Kards can make a run through the tournament, even if it means through the second-chance, loser-out bracket.
Oliver said for Kenai, the battle will be keeping the pitching down to a lower pitch count, in order to make the Kardinals’ top arms available on day three if possible.
That and the hope that Kenai’s bats will come alive for a Cinderella run to Saturday’s championship.
“I was helping coach that (2012) legion team that won state,” Oliver said. “It seems like the hot bat comes up and wins the tournament all the time.”
Oliver referenced the 2012 Legion AA Twins squad that lost the first day of the state tournament, then rallied through the second-chance bracket to win it all. Oliver was an assistant coach on that team.
Kenai beat Redington this year 23-15 in a May 11 slugfest, so the Kardinals already know how to score on the Huskies, but Oliver said for the second time around, it’ll be about holding Redington back on defense.
“Honestly I have no idea,” he said about today’s rematch. “The players and I were talking once the bracket came out, and I told them, I was making the big point of yes, we beat them, but we still can’t look past them.”
Oliver said the top of Kenai’s batting order has really meshed well in recent games and is looking stout, but he would like to see the lower half of the lineup get on base, or at least get “productive outs,” as Oliver called it, meaning move the runners on base over.
That was put in practice last weekend when Kenai was able to forge a tie with Kodiak after three innings of play before dropping the contest.
The Kenai rotation has featured a heavy dose of Harold Ochea and Parker Mattox this year, while receiving spot appearances from Caleb Smtih and Simon Grenier.
Oliver said the offense will need to come from Ochea, Smith, Sam Berry and Knox Amend, all of whom are capable of putting the ball in play for scoring opportunities.
2019 Southcentral Conference tournament
Held at Redington/Houston HS
Game 1 — Kenai Central vs. Redington, 10 a.m.
Game 2 — Soldotna vs. Kodiak, 1 p.m.
Game 3 — Palmer vs. Grace, 1 p.m.
Game 4 — Wasilla vs. Game 1 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 5 — Homer vs. Colony, 4 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 5 loser, 7 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 2 loser vs. Game 6 loser, 10 a.m.
Game 8 — Game 2 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 10 a.m. (semi)
Game 9 — Game 3 loser vs. 4 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 10 — Game 4 winner vs. Game 3 winner, 1 p.m. (semi)
Game 11 — Game 8 loser vs. Game 9 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 12 — Game 10 loser vs. Game 8 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 13 — Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 7 p.m. (championship)
Game 14 — Game 11 winner vs. Game 12 winner, 9 a.m.
Game 15 — Game 13 loser vs. Game 14 winner, 12 p.m. (2nd place)