Kenai Central baseball coach John Kennedy says junior Ethan Oliver has all the physical tools to be a great left-handed pitcher. Oliver just needs to work on the mental game.
So what did Kennedy do?
He brought in Oliver with two runners on and nobody out with the Kards clinging to a 2-0, seventh-inning lead in a Saturday game at Seymour Park that would decide which team gets the second state berth from the Southcentral Conference.
Oliver was able to escape the jam, and the Kards were able to escape with a 2-1 victory and a state berth in the program’s second year of existence.
“I had every confidence in him,” Kennedy said. “If he pitched the way he finished the season, I knew he’d be fine.”
Pinch hitter Ian Zwink greeted Oliver with a single that was just out of the reach of second baseman Miles Jones, who had started the inning by walking Blake Carricaburu and Cooper Hanson.
Carricaburu scored and Hanson moved to second. Oliver then got Robert Rodamer to pop to the catcher for the first out, and Josh Grissom to fly out to center field.
Then came the epic at-bat to decide second place. Cleanup hitter Chris Capo fell into a 1-2 hole. Capo fouled off two pitches in working the count to full, then fouled off two more pitches once the count was full.
Oliver ended the game with a low, inside fastball that caught Capo looking.
“In my mind, I thought it was there,” Oliver said of the close pitch.
Kenai center fielder AJ Hull had a good look at the pitch. Hull had pitched the first five innings so he knew the ump’s strike zone well. He said the ump had a low strike zone, and all a player can ask for is consistency.
“I’m glad he stayed consistent on that one,” Hull said.
For the Warriors, the missed opportunity was an appropriate way to end the game. Wasilla stranded runners at third base in four innings.
“Usually when we get runners on, we are able to move them around,” Wasilla coach Jason Terryberry said. “Give Kenai credit. They did what they had to do.
“It was a tough one.”
Wasilla pitchers Grissom and Bryce Borngraeber did their part. Grissom started and gave up two runs on four hits in four innings, while Borngraeber kept the Kards hitless through three innings.
“Those two guys have been our horses all year,” Terryberry said. “They gave up two runs.
“We should be able to win when they give up two runs.”
The two runs came largely due to the speed of Hull. He smacked the first pitch of the game into center for a single, then stole second.
“When he gets a single, it’s like a double,” Kennedy said of Hull, who has been caught stealing just twice this year.
Hull moved to third on a bunt single by Oliver, then scored when Johnny Wilson grounded out on a nubber down the first-base line. The ball was rolling foul but kicked back into play.
“It hit something,” Kennedy said. “We got the break we needed.”
In the third, Hull led off by beating out an infield hit, stole second and scored on a single by Hector Rivera.
Those two runs would be enough for a Kenai defense that bent with three errors but never broke.
“It’s like I’ve been saying all year, we can make mistakes but good teams minimize the damage,” Kennedy said. “We were able to do that all day.”
Hull pitched the first five innings, giving up one hit and no runs. He gave up just one hit in 10 innings of work in the tournament.
The Warriors had runners in scoring position in three of five innings against Hull.
Terryberry said the Warriors had two costly baserunning errors late in the game. In the fifth, Wasilla had runners at first and third with two outs. The Warriors attempted a double steal, and Kenai catcher Zack Mese threw to second. Rodamer did not go into second hard or slide and was tagged out to end the inning.
In the sixth, Jones retired the first batter, but two errors put runners on second and third with one out.
Mitchell Chauvin flew out to center field, but Terryberry said Capo missed an opportunity to try and tag up and head home. Tyler Hansen popped out to Mese to end that threat.
“I’m really proud of the team,” Terryberry said. “This is one of the most fun teams I’ve had to work with in a while.
“They never gave up. They always kept their heads up.”
Kenai Central 10, Soldotna 1
In the second-place semifinals Saturday morning, Dallas Pierren delivered a pitching performance that was one of the biggest factors in the Kards making state.
Pitchers are limited to 10 innings for the tournament. Hull, Kennedy’s preferred starter for the second-place game, was at five innings coming into the SoHi game.
The Kards took a 4-0 lead in the top of the first inning, but when Pierren let a few runners get on in the bottom of the inning, Kennedy was close to pulling him and going with Hull.
Pierren got out of that jam and went on to throw a 79-pitch complete game that allowed Kennedy to save Hull. Pierren gave up one run on five hits while walking three and striking out four.
“Dallas pitched his heart out,” Kennedy said.
Rivera was 3 for 4 with three runs, while Oliver was 3 for 3 with three runs, and Robert Cockrell was 3 for 4 with two runs and four RBIs.
Kenai went 4-0 this year against SoHi.
Coaches of the year — Bill Kramer, Houston; Rick Langfitt, Kodiak
Northern Division MVPs — Scott Kramer, Houston; Jonathan Boyer, Colony.
Southern Division MVP — AJ Hull, Kenai.
Good sport team
Zane Mileur, Colony; Willie Deaver, Homer; Greg Schmidt, Houston; Matt Mendenhall, Kenai; Alec Eastman, Kodiak; Gus Topp, Palmer; Gavin Larson, Soldotna; Kyle Simmons, Wasilla.
Alec Eastman, Kodiak; Damon Hammer, Colony; A.C. Schmer, Colony; Bryce Borngraeber, Wasilla; Jarrett Urban, Soldotna; Robert Rodamer, Wasilla; Max Hegge, Soldotna; Gavin Larson, Soldotna; Mitchell Chauvin, Wasilla; Tyler Hansen, Wasilla; Robert Cockrell, Kenai; Shawn Faulk, Colony.
Scott Kramer, Houston; Jonathan Boyer, Colony; AJ Hull, Kenai; Jacob Butcher, Colony; Josh Grissom, Wasilla; Tyler Marcuson, Soldotna; Brandon Mahle, Kodiak; Luke Heun, Palmer; Russ Ruta, Houston; Ethan Oliver, Kenai; David Media, Palmer; Shayne Miller, Soldotna.