Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion Soldotna pitcher Matthew Daugherty winds up for the pitch Wednesday against Kenai Central at the Kenai Little League Fields.

Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion Soldotna pitcher Matthew Daugherty winds up for the pitch Wednesday against Kenai Central at the Kenai Little League Fields.

Stars head to state baseball tourney with confidence

The Soldotna baseball team has just two appearances at state, going two-and-out each time. Sitka, meanwhile, has four state championships since the tournament started in 2000.

But confidence will not be a problem for the Stars (13-2 overall) as they get set to take on the Wolves in the first round at 10 a.m. today at Mulcahy Stadium in Anchorage.

Sitka won the Southeast Conference this season, a conference so tough that five-time state champion Juneau-Douglas was not one of the two Southeast teams to qualify for state.

But the Stars will have plenty of baseball experience to lean on.

Many players were on the American Legion Twins team that took second in the state baseball tournament last season at Mulcahy, coming all the way back in the losers bracket to beat Chugiak and force the if-necessary game before finally falling to the champs in the final game.

“We definitely have the talent,” said SoHi senior Calvin Hills, who played a big role in the Twins’ run last season. “We have the experience of what that Legion team was able to do, and that was with a lot of players on this team.”

Playing for the Twins also allowed many of the players to see what Southeast baseball is about.

“They are definitely good competition, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before,” Hills said.

SoHi’s players are also feeling really confident about sending ace Joey Becher to the hill today.

In the conference tournament, with the possibility of five games in three days, managing a pitching staff takes a ton of strategy.

At state, the most a team can play is three games in three days.

“We’re not saving anybody,” SoHi coach Robb Quelland said. “There’s not a strategy on saving pitching. It’s going to be our best against their best.

“Fans in the first round will get their money’s worth because they’ll see the best pitching the state has to offer.”

Becher threw two no-hitters going into the conference tournament, then threw 6 1-3 innings of scoreless relief in the tournament.

That has him confident as he toes the rubber today.

“We just have to keep the energy up and stay focused,” Becher said. “I don’t think they can beat us, but we can definitely beat ourselves.”

Teammates marvel at how much the big righty has matured and how tough his stuff has become in the last year.

“I’ve caught him for a while,” SoHi senior backstop Kenny Griffin said. “Two years ago, he barely had a curveball. Now he has one of the best curveballs in the state.”

Hills, Griffin, Becher and Mason Prior all started with Soldotna Little League when they were 4 years old and would love nothing more than to go out with a bang.

“We definitely want to leave with something,” Prior said. “I wish it could have been the league championship, but we still want to leave something on the banner for the coaches.”

Becher said watching the growth of his three fellow seniors has been amazing.

“It’s kind of surreal seeing all of us grow into the people we are today,” he said. “I never imagined that any of us would grow into the baseball players we are.”

At the beginning of the season, Becher also wondered if the Stars had the depth to compete with the top programs in the state.

But the four seniors started playing with many younger players in the SoHi program in Soldotna Little League Majors (ages 9 to 12), which also is when Quelland started coaching the group.

“Just looking at the younger players, they’ve all grown a lot,” Becher said. “They’ve all improved so much.

“I didn’t think we’d be as good as we are now at the beginning of the year.”

Sophomore Caleb Spence and junior Mathew Daugherty also combined on a no-hitter this season.

Prior said the coaches deserve a lot of credit for investing so much time in the program. For example, he said assistant coach Bob Ledda set up a batting practice facility in Sterling that has been very useful for getting in cuts, even in the dead of winter.

“It’s been pretty crazy, how long of a road it has been, and how long we’ve traveled to get here,” Prior said.

The fifth SoHi senior — Kolten Wilson — just joined the team this year.

“It’s a family, from the coaches all the way to the players,” he said. “They accepted me in right away.”

When the Twins finished second at state last season, they qualified for the Northwest Class A Regional American Legion tourney in Logan, Utah.

While the Twins went two-and-out, in an odd twist of fate the Bitterroot (Montana) Red Sox swept to that tourney title. If Wilson had not moved from Montana to the Kenai Peninsula in June, he would have been on that Bitterroot team.

So he knows what a championship team looks like, and thinks the Stars have that look.

“It has to happen,” Wilson said. “It’s not a should happen, it has to happen. We play good enough baseball to be state champs.”

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