When the Southcentral Conference baseball tournament boots up from today to Saturday in Kenai, Kenai Peninsula nines will try and shake off a state drought that dates back to the last time the tourney was held in Kenai — 2012.
The host Kardinals clinched the only state berth in school history that year. Soldotna went in 2008 and 2011, while Homer has berths in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009.
If state tournament berths were decided with regular season games, Wasilla (10-0 in conference) and SoHi (9-1) would be the easy choices.
“Face it. Wasilla is 10-0 and Soldotna is 9-1 and the bottom six — the rest of us are pretty compatible,” Kenai coach John Kennedy said. “Those two teams have the most experience and the most talent, and their record shows it.”
But the two berths are decided in a double-elimination tournament, which throws everything up in the air.
Soldotna coach Robb Quelland, whose team played in the conference championship last season despite being the No. 3 seed from the Southern Division, said baseball has too many quirks to assume anything in this tournament.
“It comes down to who comes in hot and who has a pitcher throwing the ball well,” Quelland said. “Any of those teams, if everything goes well, can beat Wasilla and us.
“That’s just the way it goes in Alaska baseball.”
The Stars, the No. 1 seed from the south, come into the tournament smoking. They face Houston, No. 4 from the north, today at 1 p.m. at the Kenai Little League fields in the first round.
In three of its past five games, SoHi has pitched a no-hitter. Two came from Joey Becher, while Mathew Daugherty and Caleb Spence combined on the other.
Further, in four of five games SoHi has posted a shutout, allowing just two runs in that span. Those two runs came in a 9-2 victory over Houston.
Pitching depth is essential in this tournament. The easiest way to state is to win two games Thursday and another Friday night to become champion.
But lose in today’s first round, and two games Friday and two games Saturday are needed to take second place and a state berth.
“We are very confident in the pitchers we have,” Quelland said.
The coach said Becher and Daugherty are elite starters. Behind those two, Quelland has so many seasoned arms that his main complaint this season has been the difficulty off getting all his hurlers innings.
On defense, Quelland experimented early, but errors have been few and far between since the lineup, led by defensive captain and catcher Kenny Griffin, has solidified. The coach also said Kolten Wilson, Mason Prior and Brandon Crowder make up a strong outfield.
SoHi’s one weakness has been figuring out pitchers that work at slow speeds.
“We believe we’ve worked past that,” Quelland said. “Sometimes at the varsity level, you don’t see somebody throwing in the 50s and 60s.
“But the ones we’ve faced not only throw at that speed, but they are very accurate.”
In the Southern Division, Homer, Kenai and Kodiak all finished with 4-6 records, but Homer got the No. 2 seed based on tiebreakers, while Kenai is No. 3 and Kodiak is No. 4.
The Mariners open play today at 10 a.m. at Kenai Little League fields against Palmer, which topped Homer 12-6 earlier this season.
That matchup against the Moose was one of those strange ones that can change a tournament. Homer outhit Palmer but left a ton of runners on base.
“I feel pretty good with where we are at with pitching and defense,” Homer coach Rich Sonnen said. “For a couple of games, our hitting was off, but we’ve got that back.”
Kyle Johnson is back from injury and joins a deep staff that includes Garrett Butcher, Joe Ravin, Seth Adkins, Adam Brinster and Greg Smith.
Michael Swoboda leads the offense, but Smith and Butcher also have been hitting well recently.
With a 1-0 loss to Soldotna on the books, and a game against Wasilla in which the Warriors led just 2-0 after six innings, Sonnen said his team is in the mix for a state berth.
“I feel like we can compete with them both,” he said. “As long as we can keep it close, we can try and pull it out at the end.”
The Kardinals open up with a 1 p.m. game against Colony, No. 2 from the north, at Coral Seymour Memorial Park.
Kenai defeated Colony 12-3 in nine innings this season, with Gavin Petterson going the distance on the mound. The victory over the Knights was the first in program history.
Petterson, Paul Steffensen and Connor Jones are the mainstays on the mound for Kenai, which doesn’t have a ton of pitching depth.
“It’s not our strength, but I do have kids that come in and compete,” Kennedy said.
Defensively, Kennedy said the Kardinals have come a long way. Lapses will not be an option.
“There are days we make plays, and days we don’t,” he said. “We’re hoping to get the good days where we play well.
“The whole idea has been to get better for tournament time.”
The offense will be triggered by Steffensen, a leadoff hitter with both speed and power.