Baseball season. Feels good just to say it, right?
While a true summer is not upon us just yet, the high school baseball season is preparing to begin its first games, in which Kenai Central, Soldotna and Homer will find out exactly who is the top Peninsula team.
The three teams will attempt to fit into two state berths from the Northern Lights Conference. Last year, only Kenai made the cut. The Kardinals won once in three games en route to a fifth-place finish.
Five starting seniors from last year’s squad have graduated from Kenai, including pitcher AJ Hull, Robert Cockrell and catcher Zack Mese.
“Zack was a crucial loss,” said Kenai coach John Kennedy. “I mean, AJ was AJ, and he was a great player, but Zack is harder to replace I think.
“We have some returning guys that will fill some holes from last year, but we really don’t know what we have because we’re still shoveling snow.”
Kennedy reiterated that the playing fields are still unusable, as the ground frost is much deeper than last year.
“Last year we had much more snow, but once it melted, it was gone real fast and the field was playable,” he said. “This year, the ground under the snow is much colder still, so it’ll be awhile.”
Kenai played to a 7-2 record in the conference last year, and the Kards were 8-2 overall.
Key returning players this season include senior Hector Rivera, junior Miles Jones, senior Luke Short, junior Justin Wisnewski, senior Skyview transfer Tay Harling and senior Ethan Oliver.
It remains to be seen exactly how effective Oliver will be as pitcher, as he suffered a serious leg break last August in a football game, and has since been recovering. Kennedy thinks he should be fine.
“When an athlete goes through an injury like that, it’s hard to see how good they’ll be until you get into that comparative game situation,” Kennedy said.
As for whether or not Kenai can make a return trip to the state tournament in late May, Kennedy remains optimistic.
“We learned a lot last year and would love to get back, but there are a lot of unknowns,” he said. “Who knows how this season is going to work itself out. We never know what the chemistry is going to be like.”
The Kards are scheduled to open their season Thursday against Homer at home.
The Soldotna Stars are welcoming a new coach into the mix. George Stein will be replacing Roger Phillips.
Stein, a lifelong baseball fan who played the game at a junior college in San Diego, was also a C-team girls basketball coach at SoHi a few years back.
“I think we’re going to be pretty young this year, because we only have three seniors,” Stein said. “We got some pretty good young kids coming up.”
The three seniors are catcher Shayne Miller, an all-conference player last year, starting pitcher Tyler Fritz and infielder Gavin Larson.
“They are the nuts and bolts of our team,” Stein said.
Like Kenai, SoHi lost a core group of seniors last year that helped the team to an 8-2 league record (8-3 overall), namely Jake Darrow, Tyler Marcuson and Mitchell Daugharty, but Stein is confident for 2013 and the players that have come out.
Max Conradi, a center fielder, might also see time on the mound this season, and is expected to be hitting near the top of the lineup.
“We have some strong hitters, young guys, but it’s tough to tell right now how good we’ll be,” Stein said. “We just haven’t had much of a chance the past week. The fields are close to being good, the outfield is clear, but the infield needs to dry out some.”
The Stars will begin their season with a two-day slate of games against Kodiak on April 26 and 27.
“Maybe we won’t start off as sharp because we’re not getting outside, but our hitters could give us a shot at regions,” Stein said. “We’re really happy with our first nine or ten guys.”
Down in Homer, Larry Kuhns returns for another season as the coach. Kuhns was the head coach of the Mariners when the team started in 1999, and led the team to a runner-up finish at state in 2005, losing 9-6 to Sitka in 14 innings in the title game.
“We have 26 guys out, which is the most we’ve had in a long time,” Kuhns said. “I think we have pretty good depth with that.”
Kuhns said the tentative starting lineup consists of three sophomores, four juniors and one senior — catcher Willy Deaver.
Juniors Tommy Bowe and Brian Rowe were a part of the Legion AA Twins that won a state championship last summer, and Kuhns is glad to have their experience and power on the team.
“We’re a better team this year, and I’m real tickled with their attitude,” Kuhns said. “We’re on an up cycle. These are really good athletes with good attitudes.
“I fully expect that we’ll be in the hunt come tournament time. With the pitching depth we have, and we have depth with other positions too, we can do it.”
Along with Rowe at center field and Bowe at second base, junior outfielder Derek Johnson and sophomore third-baseman Zach Bynum will help the team to try to improve on its 5-4 conference record last year.
Kuhns said this year he hopes the team will feature a blend of good hitting and defensive play, and mentioned that he thinks the team has been primarily a hitting team in years past.
“We’re a much faster team with the addition of some of those sophomores, and Brian Rowe is a terror on the bases,” he said. “We have six or seven legitimate base runners. Speed is going to be an asset.”