Last year, the Soldotna baseball team was able to earn a state berth after winning its first two games in the Southcentral Conference tournament, but losing the conference title game to Kodiak.
That won’t be good enough this year.
The tournament opens today at Coral Seymour Memorial Park and the Kenai Little League fields featuring a modified double-elimination format.
“It’s a more fair system,” Homer coach Lary Kuhns said. “It will actually show the best two teams. You’ve got to win at least three games to get to state, and getting the second berth could take as many as five games.
“You have to have pitching depth and team depth.”
The first round is early today, with Soldotna and Houston playing at 10 a.m. at Kenai Little League fields, Wasilla and Homer meeting at 10 a.m. at Seymour Park, Colony and Kodiak playing at 1 p.m. at the little league fields, and Kenai Central and Palmer playing at 1 p.m. at Seymour Park.
The first-round winners meet in the tourney semis today at 4 and 7 p.m. at Seymour Park, while the losers start the arduous trek through the losers’ bracket on Friday. The championship will be at 7 p.m. Friday at Seymour Park.
Kenai coach John Kennedy said any team that wants to finish in the top two and earn a state berth must win a doubleheader at some point.
“That’s going to put a premium on good pitching,” Kennedy said.
Soldotna coach Roger Phillips also said the format is nice because teams don’t travel for just one game. Kodiak made the most of its trip to the Matanuska-Susitna valleys last year by winning the conference title, but if the Bears would have lost in the first round, they would have traveled all that way for one game.
“We finally have the weather to go and play baseball,” Phillips said. “It’ll be nice to go into a tournament and play a lot of baseball. I really like it.”
The tournament also will mark the christening of Seymour Park for the 2012 baseball season. Phillips called Seymour Park the best ballpark in the state.
“Kudos to the Oilers organization for letting us play there,” he said.
Soldotna, Kenai and even some Homer players have played in the park as members of the American Legion Twins. Coaches said it will affect strategy because the outfield is so big and because the backstop is farther away from home plate.
Soldotna comes in as the top seed from the Southern Division. The Stars went 8-2 in league, losing twice in league play to Kenai. Kenai went 7-2, losing to Colony and Homer, but the Kards lost out on the top seed because winning percentage is the top criteria. Kenai had a game in Kodiak rained out early in the season and was never able to make up that game.
Soldotna defeated Houston 14-12 this season. Jarrett Urban looked good closing out that game, and Phillips said Urban will take the hill this morning.
Soldotna, Kenai and Homer all swept Houston, Palmer and Wasilla in league play this year.
“That may affect how we attack pitching,” Phillips said. “You can only pitch a kid 10 innings in three days. Every coach has to really map out a plan.
“At the same time, you can never overlook anyone. It’s baseball. Anyone can beat anyone on any given day.”
In addition to Urban, Phillips said the Stars will be relying heavily on players like Max Hegge, Shayne Miller, Tyler Marcuson and Jake Darrow.
But Phillips said it will take more than that.
“I’ve said from day one that every kid on the SoHi team is a pitcher,” Phillips said. “That will certainly be the case this weekend.”
Kennedy had not decided Wednesday who he will pitch today in trying to repeat a victory against Palmer.
Key pitchers for Kenai will be AJ Hull, Ethan Oliver and Robert Cockrell. Kennedy also said Johnny Wilson has been coming up big at third base.
But the coach said that teams will need depth to succeed at the tournament.
“We can’t have teams say, ‘We’ve got no problem with these 7, 8 and 9 guys,’” Kennedy said. “We need them to be thinking about pitching to them.”
Hiding holes in a defense also will be impossible over the course of three to five games.
“The team that has the fewest errors, and is able to capitalize on the other team’s mistakes, is going to win,” Kennedy said.
Homer will be chasing the eighth state berth since the program went varsity in 2000. The Mariners’ best finish at state came in 2005, with a loss in the championship game.
Homer finished 5-4 in the league to earn the No. 3 seed from the Southern Division. The Mariners didn’t get to play Colony due to poor weather, but Homer beat everybody else in the Southern Division, including first-round opponent Wasilla.
Kuhns said he has three main pitchers to pick from against the Warriors — Zack Haning, Willie Deaver and Lucas Schneider.
“We’re going to play every game as if it is our last,” Kuhns said. “It we lose one, we may go to state, but we ain’t winning a championship. Our first goal is to win regions.”
Like the other coaches, Kuhns said it could be pitchers further down the depth chart, like Wylie Donich, that end up deciding crucial moments of the tournament.
The Mariners will get senior leadership from Dylan Morrison behind the plate and Taylor Downes in right field. Morrison has spent plenty of time behind the Seymour dish in a Twins uniform.
Center fielder Brian Rowe’s speed will be put to good use in the Seymour outfield, while Tommy Bowe leads the team in home runs and will look to challenge the traditionally imposing Seymour outfield walls.
“A break here or there and I wouldn’t be surprised at anyone winning the tournament,” Kuhns said. “There may be some favorites, but a lot of emotion goes into it, so there may be a surprise.”