After a two-year absence, the baseball programs from the Kenai Peninsula will try and find a way back to the state tournament when the Southcentral Conference tournament commences today in Houston.
Since the state tournament expanded in 2007 and the Southcentral Conference earned two berths, Colony has been the dominant squad, going to state in six of eight years.
Homer, which had gone to state three times under the old format, has added berths in 2007 and 2009 in the new format.
Soldotna went in its second year as a program in 2008 and again in 2011, while Kenai went in its second year of existence in 2012.
Homer and Soldotna both finished at 5-5 in conference play this season, with Homer taking the tiebreaker for the second seed out of the Southern Division due to a better division record.
The Mariners (7-6 overall) start the tournament at 10 a.m. today against Palmer (4-6 SC) at Bumpus Field in Wasilla. The winner of that game faces the Wasilla-Kenai winner in the semifinals at 4 p.m. at Houston today.
Just last weekend, Homer lost to Palmer 9-6 before notching a 9-3 victory against the Moose.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Homer coach Rich Sonnen said. “They are a solid team and hit the ball well. I don’t think we saw their best pitching.”
At a minimum, a team must win three games to get to state, but falling into the second-place bracket means even more games. Sonnen said his squad doesn’t have the one or two dominant pitchers of a Colony or Wasilla, but he does have a lot of depth.
Brandon Beachy, Wylie Donich, Kyle Johnson, Greg Smith, Sheldon Hutt and Owen Delehanty all could be called upon for key innings.
“I’ve got a lot of guys that can stand up there and throw strikes,” Sonnen said. “That’s good if we have to take the long way.”
Sonnen also said the offense is coming around, with Donich and Michael Swoboda picking things up at the plate lately.
The coach said the Mariners’ fate will likely come down to defense.
“When you get into the tournament, it comes down to who makes the fewest mistakes,” he said.
Soldotna takes on Colony (8-2 SC) at 1 p.m. at Houston. The winner faces the Houston-Kodiak winner in the semis at 7 p.m. today at Houston. The Knights topped the Stars 7-1 midway through the season.
Soldotna coach Robb Quelland said the Stars have the pitching to do well at the tournament. Joey Becher and Tyler Covey lead the staff, but Matt Daugherty, Justice Miller and David Rue provide depth.
Quelland wouldn’t reveal who will get the ball against the Knights, but he would reveal what the hurler will do.
“They have to throw strikes,” Quelland said. “Colony is a strong team, and they’ve always been a strong team at hitting.
“We have to keep their hitters off-balance and rely heavily on our defense.”
Freshman Trayton Bird and junior Covey have been leading the offense lately. With only two seniors, Quelland says he has a team that has grown a lot since the loss to the Knights.
SoHi is bringing just 12 players to the tournament, so every player will be important.
“I believe SoHi baseball is getting back to where it’s been for years in the past,” Quelland said. “I don’t know how many we will win, but we will be competitive in the tournament.”
Kenai, which was 1-9 in the conference, has to play Wasilla, 9-1 in the league, at 10 a.m. at Houston.
Kenai lost to Wasilla 16-3 in five innings this season, committing nine errors.
“As bad as that score was, we created a lot of mistakes and problems for ourselves in the game,” Kenai coach John Kennedy said. “If we eliminate that, we may have a chance to sneak up and beat somebody.”
Kennedy said a win against Wasilla is crucial because his pitching staff is not deep. The staff is lead by Paul Steffensen, Ellery Steffensen, Sam Combs and Nate O’Lena.
The Steffensens and O’Lena lead an offense that can score runs as long as it remains disciplined.
“For us to win, it’s going to have to be a team effort,” Kennedy said. “If we don’t do it as a team, we’ll be coming home early.”
With such a short season, the Kards have a tough task because none of their players played last summer for the American Legion Twins.
But Kennedy said the team has made giant strides in a short period of time.
“No matter what happens I’m extremely proud of what the kids have done with the amount of baseball experience they have,” Kennedy said. “Even though they’ve lost games, they’ve been in a lot of games.”