Kenai’s Caleb Smith offers up a pitch to a Kodiak batter May 4, 2018, at the Kenai Little League fields. Smith is one of Kenai Central’s returning arms in 2019. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai’s Caleb Smith offers up a pitch to a Kodiak batter May 4, 2018, at the Kenai Little League fields. Smith is one of Kenai Central’s returning arms in 2019. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Season preview: Parity reigns in Southcentral baseball conference

Last year’s Southcentral Conference baseball tournament may have well been named “May Madness,” what with all the twists and turns more typical of the March Madness hoops craziness.

In the nine-team field that sends only two to state, the top two seeds failed to make it to the third and final day of the tournament, and it was ultimately the four- and seven-seeded teams that advanced to the state tournament. Palmer was that seven seed, and the Moose ended up winning it all.

Kenai Central baseball coach Luke Oliver is hoping to have a team that plays the Cinderella spoiler, and explained that if a team can bring a hot pitcher and defense into a tournament, wild things can happen.

“You have to be good that one day,” Oliver said. “If you can knock off the top seed, it’s all easier.”

This year’s region tournament will be hosted May 23 to 25 by Redington High School with games at Houston High.

In 2018, the Homer Mariners became the second seed in the Southcentral Conference after a three-way tie was settled with Wasilla and Kodiak, but like top-seeded Wasilla, lost on day one and eventually dropped out before they could make it to the final day.

Mariners head coach Rich Sonnen was left to wonder what happened, and chalked it up to falling victim to close competition.

“We had a three-way tie for first so everybody was pretty close, which is pretty standard in our region,” Sonnen said. “There might be one or two (teams) at the top and one or two at the bottom, but the rest is pretty even. Somebody can upset one or two, then that opens the door for everybody.”

More often than not, one team will dominate the conference for a spell while the others play catch-up. In recent years, that dominant team was Wasilla, which held command over the rest of the field with a battery that was hard to beat in pitcher Nolan Monaghan and catcher Jeffrey Forster.

But those two graduated three years ago and the Warriors have since come down to earth with the rest. The transition from a conference dominated by one team to one hotly contested by many is a positive, said Soldotna head coach Robb Quelland.

“It’s good to have new players in the conference,” Quelland said. “It makes everyone play better, you’re not coasting in any games, there’s no gimmes.”

Quelland echoed the thoughts of Sonnen and Oliver in guessing who would take the reigns this year. The consensus is that Palmer would emerge from the Valley as a top contender, having already beaten Kenai 10-0 earlier this week, while Kodiak is back and looking deep as ever with two wins over Palmer this weekend.

“It’s cyclical,” Quelland said. “Kodiak used to have the best team, then Colony dominated, then Wasilla. It takes that time to build.”

Oliver said he has always known Kodiak to be a tough program to beat, even in his playing days for the Kardinals, but Sonnen cautioned not to overlook a fellow peninsula team, Soldotna, which won a short scrimmage with Homer last week on Homer’s turf.

Until the conference tournament weekend, teams will be scrapping hard for a high seeding. The following is a look at what peninsula teams will look like:

KENAI KARDINALS

Oliver returns for his second year as Kardinals head coach, and is optimistic with 30 players in the program. Kenai has not made it to state since 2012, a seven-year drought that Oliver is hoping to break sooner than later.

“We’re still rebuilding to a degree,” he said. “As long as we keep working, we hope to move up.”

Oliver pointed to too many walks and errors in the field as key reasons that kept the Kardinals from winning more than they wanted to. As the eighth seed among the nine-team conference, Oliver said Kenai has a lot of room for improvement.

“With last year, I had a little higher expectations than what happened,” he said. “I’ve been part of some awesome coaching staffs, and I like to win. … This year we’ve kind of revamped the approach, we’ve revamped how we do practice and what the focus is each day. The focus is more on defense and that’s what we continue to do.”

The Kards return four seniors this season, two with experienced resumes — returning all-conference first-teamer Knox Amend and Andrew Carver, who played catcher last year but will shift to other positions this year. Oliver said Amend delivers a lot of leadership for the younger and less-experienced players.

Kenai’s pitching staff will be headlined by sophomore Harold Ochea, junior Parker Mattox, sophomore Caleb Smith and junior Seth Segura. When not on the mound, Oliver said Ochea will be catching, Mattox will be a middle infielder or outfielder, Smith will be shortstop and Segura will be at second base. Oliver said Amend is a versatile utility hand who can play any position.

When Ochea is pitching, Oliver said sophomore Nic Wehrstein will be catching, although he is currently out for injury but should return soon.

First base will see returning junior Sam Berry, second will see Segura, and third base will see a collection of faces including Carver, senior J.T. Lott and freshman Ben Spinka. Lott got most of his time in right field in 2018. Junior newcomer Major Reis will likely take over left field this year.

SOLDOTNA STARS

Robb Quelland is back coaching for the ninth year overall and fifth in his current stint, and is joined by assistants Kenny Griffin, Bob Ledda, Logan Smith and Dr. Chris Mickelson. Quelland said he has about 25 players out for the team this year, including five that will play on the Legion Twins team come summer.

“We’ll be competitive,” he said. “We won’t know until we get on a field with bigger teams … but we’re fortunate to have our returners.”

SoHi lost a slew of talented seniors, including Southcentral MVP Cody Quelland and first-teamer Brandon Crowder, but coach Quelland said the Stars return three talented seniors this season in center fielder Jeremy Kupferschmid, shortstop David Michael and utility man Trapper Thompson. All three are four-year starters for SoHi and also play for the Legion Twins. Quelland also said senior Brennan Werner is back with the team after dealing with an injury.

The pitching rotation will consist chiefly of Kupferschmid, Thompson and juniors Davey Belger and Tanner Ussing. When not pitching, Belger will be at third base and Ussing will start at first.

Junior Jacob Boze will start at catcher most often, while junior Trenton Steadman will be at first, junior Seth Payment will be at second, freshman Atticus Gibson will be in left field and junior Chris Jaime will be in right field. Sophomore Foster Boze will get time as a utility player.

HOMER MARINERS

Sonnen returns for another attempt in snapping Homer’s 10-year state tournament drought, and said he has 17 players out this season that could do it.

“We always talk about it,” Sonnen said. “It’s the ultimate goal of any team, it’s the top tier on our goal list. The first thing to get to state we’ve got to do is finish top two in our region.”

Homer gets its season officially under way April 24 at home against Kenai for a nonconference contest.

Like Soldotna, the Mariners lost several key seniors from the 2018 squad, namely shortstop Joe Ravin, pitcher Adam Brinster, infielder Douglas Dean and Spencer Warren.

‘We lost our whole starting infield,” Sonnen said.

Sonnen said a large group of sophomores return to help give Homer a boost. He said the three main arms of the pitching rotation include junior Mose Hayes, sophomore Harrison Metz and senior Seth Adkins. When not pitching, Hayes and Metz will take up the middle infield at shortstop and second base, respectively, while Adkins will catch.

Sophomore Austin Ceccarelli will join the infield with junior first baseman Johnny Rummery, who missed last season with a broken leg, and sophomore Coda Wood will also get time at third. Sonnen said junior Colby Marion will probably swing up to play at first.

The Homer outfield will consist mainly of senior Hunter Warren in center, sophomore Karl Wickstrom in left and senior Austin Dash in right.

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