The Soldotna baseball team retained the Division II state title with a 14-3 victory in five innings over Kenai Central on Saturday at Wasilla High School.
“It’s big, really big,” said SoHi graduate Sage Cruz, who went out a winner with fellow graduates Hunter Harrison and Evan Appelhans. “It’s really one of the best things ever, especially since not a lot of us are winning state and we’ve worked super hard.”
The Stars baseball squad followed in the footsteps of the Stars girls soccer squad — getting an at-large berth to state then defeating Kenai Central for the title.
With a state title on the line, many players also went into the game knowing they would spend the summer playing on the same team as their Saturday opponents for the American Legion Twins program this summer.
“Our heart goes out to the Kenai kids,” said Soldotna head coach Ken Gibson, also the head coach of the Twins A team. “We’ll see them tomorrow for legions practice. We’ll be all buddies then.
“But today, not so much.”
Kenai head coach Luke Oliver agreed.
“It sucks to lose,” he said.
The Stars finish 15-8, while the Kards finish 13-7. The two squads split in the regular season, then Kenai put a 14-1 decision on Soldotna on May 27 in the Southcentral Conference third-place game. The conference gets three bids to state, which is why the Stars needed an at-large berth.
Cruz said the Stars were too relaxed and overconfident at the conference tournament.
“This game we were determined to do it, and it worked out well,” he said.
Gibson said the big difference was the return of incoming junior pitchers Trenton Ohnemus and Colby Sturman to full strength.
The coach said a tired arm had Ohnemus struggling with command later in the season, but Saturday he returned to form just in time to control an explosive Kenai offense.
Ohnemus went all five innings, giving up three unearned runs on three hits while walking two and punching out seven.
“Kenai bats are great, but when you have good pitching like that, it’s just hard to string something together,” Gibson said.
Ohnemus, who made the state all-tournament team last year, said the incentive to locate his fastball, curve, changeup and slider all game was easy.
“Just wanted to win and go back to back,” he said.
The Kards were in it early. Kenai starter Jackson Marion, with help from a diving catch from left fielder Daniel Steffensen, had the team up 1-0 headed to the top of the third.
SoHi would blow the game open in the frame, with the first 10 batters reaching base against Marion and reliever Gabe Joanis. Steffensen, in his first time pitching this season, would come on to work out of the inning, but not before the Stars put up 11 runs.
“When you get down by that much, it’s hard to come back from,” Oliver said. “But they did a good job and kept swinging the bats.”
It was the type of inning where errors, misjudged fly balls, bloop hits, line drives, walks, a hit batter and wild pitches coalesce into a nightmare. Gibson said respect for Kenai’s bats demanded the Stars did not take their foot off the gas.
“We took advantage of everything they gave us and that’s what you have to do to win these games consistently,” Gibson said.
The unlikely offensive star for SoHi was incoming sophomore Matt Schilling, who was 4 for 4 with two runs and three RBIs in the No. 2 spot. Schilling, SoHi’s player of the game, was seeing his first action at state and played mostly junior varsity for Soldotna this season.
Gibson said he started Schilling because he liked the matchup against Kenai’s pitchers. It wasn’t what Schilling expected when he went to the ballpark.
“I hadn’t been playing in the other two games,” he said. “I was very surprised, and very happy.”
Gibson said his ability to put a rarely used incoming sophomore in the No. 2 hole, and to keep a great pitcher like Sturman on the sidelines, shows how good of a team the Stars have become.
“To have 17 kids here — all of them could go in and help out at any given time,” Gibson said. “It’s huge.
“I felt coming into the tournament, as long as we didn’t have a total meltdown like we did at regions, we would be strong all the way through and hard to beat.”
Also for the Stars, Easton Hawkins had two runs, Jayden Stuyvesant had two runs, Levi Mickelson was 2 for 3 with three RBIs, Ohnemus scored two runs, Appelhans scored two runs and Derrick Jones scored two runs.
The Stars lose just one player who was in the field Saturday — Appelhans at first base — and return all their top pitchers.
“Look out for this team next year,” said Cruz, who was DH on Saturday.
The Kards lose seniors Owen Whicker, Charlie Chamberlain and Jayden Sandahl, who was Kenai’s player of the game. Oliver thanked the seniors for all the work to get the program to its first state final.
“I think we overachieved compared to what a lot of people thought we could do this year,” Oliver said. “And the guys battled and they worked their tail off to get here.”
Steffensen, Braden Smith and Charlie Chamberlain had the hits for Kenai, while Steffensen, Everett Chamberlain and Sandahl had the runs. Charlie Chamberlain added an RBI.