A team with just one or two good pitchers is going to have a rough ride in the Northern Lights Conference this year.
The number of conference games, and the number of conference tournament games, has been pumped up.
“Now all the games we play mean something,” said Kenai Central coach John Kennedy. “It’s going to place a premium on pitching and defense.”
The conference has a Southern Division of Homer, Soldotna, Kodiak and Kenai. The Northern Division has Houston, Colony, Palmer and Wasilla.
Last season, each team played every other team in the conference once to determine seeding for the conference tournament. The conference tournament was then single elimination, meaning a team had to win just two games there to get to state.
This season, each team plays division rivals twice, plus out-of-division rivals once, in order to determine seeding for the conference tournament.
The conference tournament, from May 24 to 26 at Kenai Central, will then be a modified double-elimination event.
“Last year, the tournament had six games,” Kennedy said. “This year, there will be 14 games.
“The nice thing about the tournament is it’s going to place a premium on pitching. A team may have only one pitcher, and get the first game, but you’ve got to be able to play more than two games to get to the state tournament.”
Last season, Kodiak won the conference tournament, while Soldotna was the runner-up to become the conference’s second representative at state.
“I think the Southern Division has always historically been the strongest division,” Homer coach Larry Kuhns said. “There was quite a few years there where if we didn’t win the region, it seemed like Kodiak did.”
With a historically strong program, no high school soccer, and weather that lets them on the field relatively early, Southern Division coaches all expect the Bears to be strong again.
Soldotna had big losses, but played all of last season without senior Jake Darrow and most of last season without senior Tyler Marcuson.
“One of our goals as a team is to make it back to state,” Soldotna coach Roger Phillips said. “If we take care of business on the bump and play solid defense, the guys should be able to reach those goals.
“With really only losing three players, we have a lot of experience on the diamond.”
Kenai and Homer also figure to be much-improved over last year.
The Kardinals were in their first year of existence last year.
“The kids returning have an idea of what to expect,” Kennedy said. “We’ll be better in that aspect. We’ll have a lot of experience.”
Kuhns was the head coach of the Mariners when the team started in 1999. He led the team to a runner-up finish at state in 2005, losing 9-6 to Sitka in 14 innings in the title game.
After taking a few years off, he returned to lead the team last year.
“Homer’s trying to get back to that point again,” Kuhns said of the Mariners’ state runs less than 10 years ago. “I think we’re on the right track to really do it.”
The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula’s baseball teams:
Homer has 20 players, and 13 are freshmen or sophomores.
Even with all the youth, Kuhns said Homer will be improved.
“Last year, we were kind of rebuilding,” he said. “This year, I think we’re noticeably better than last year.”
The team will be led by senior captain and catcher Dylan Morrison.
Other core players will be sophomore center fielder Brian Rowe, junior third baseman and pitcher Willie Deaver and sophomore pitcher and shortstop Zack Haning.
Kuhns also is expecting solid performances from sophomore second baseman Nahoa Jette, senior first baseman and pitcher Devon Kennelty, junior pitcher and shortstop Lucas Schneider, sophomore right fielder Tommy Bowe and freshman first baseman Owen Delahanty.
Kuhns knows his team is not going anywhere without pitching and defense.
“Last year, our hitting was better than expected,” he said. “Our pitching and defense were worse than expected. Our pitching is up to a better level. We’ve been working on it a lot this spring.”
Kenai Central Kardinals
Even with the year of experience, Kennedy said opening up with games today and Saturday in Kodiak will be a tough task.
“We’re opening up with three games in four days,” Kennedy said. “Trying to manage our pitchers for that many games is going to be crazy. Especially early in the season, guys are not going to be throwing complete games.”
Senior AJ Hull will give the Kardinals a reliable pitcher, hitter and fielder at any position. Junior Ethan Oliver also is a pitcher and versatile player in the field, or behind the plate.
Other key returners are sophomore pitcher and infielder Miles Jones, sophomore pitcher and utility player Dallas Pierren, senior infielder Jonny Wilson, senior first baseman and pitcher Robert Cockrell and junior infielder and pitcher Hector Rivera.
Adding depth to the roster will be senior catcher and infielder Zack Mese, sophomore outfielder Justin Wisnewski, senior outfielder Alex Nason and junior infielder Sage Klauder.
Kennedy said the team has been working hard in the batting cage, but that only takes a squad so far.
“You can only do so much in a cage,” Kennedy said. “They can hit something 60 miles per hour, but what happens when you’re between the white lines facing an 80 mile per hour fastball, plus a curveball and changeup?”
Soldotna is in remarkably good shape, even after losing Josiah Covey to graduation and Mason Kanakis and Tyler Fritz to moves out of state.
Marcuson and Darrow are two big reasons those losses will not be felt as much.
Darrow, a middle infielder and pitcher, spent his junior year out of state and concentrating on baseball.
“It’s great to have him back in the lineup,” Phillips said. “The other thing he has is great speed and we can use that on the basepaths.”
Marcuson missed most of last season due to ineligibility, but it was his clutch pitching in the conference semifinal that nailed down the state berth.
“He’ll step right in, and he may even have a little more power than Josiah,” Phillips said. “He has a real strong bat.”
More key returners for the Stars are junior pitcher and infielder Mitchel Daugherty, junior pitcher and catcher Shayne Miller, sophomore middle infielder Max Hegge, and junior first baseman and captain Jarrett Urban.
Like Kennedy, Phillips is bracing for the quick start to the season.
“We have five conference games in the first week,” he said. “Everyone will pitch.”
Phillips also is excited by the mix of youth and experience he has on the team.
“We have a very, very strong group of freshmen that came in with lots of experience at the legion level,” the coach said. “That’s a nice thing, because we don’t have to start from scratch.
“Five of those kids have really high baseball IQs. This freshman class will really push the older guys.”