Rejoice, Kenai Peninsula baseball fanatics. The crack of a baseball glancing off a bat will soon be heard in local ballparks.
The first pitch of the high school season will be thrown in less than a week, and the three Peninsula teams in the Northern Lights Conference will commence their chase of a state berth.
Two state tournament bids come from the Northern Lights Conference, and last year, none of the Peninsula teams made it. Those tickets went to Kodiak and Colony.
If local teams wish to make an appearance at state, they will once again have to dig deep against the Bears and Knights. They will also have to dig deep in their pockets.
This year will bring a change in venue for the state tournament. Moller Park in Sitka will be the place to be on the weekend of June 5-7, meaning teams earning a state slot will have to scrounge up the change to travel to Southeast Alaska.
But for now, all players and coaches are thinking about is getting outside for a game of ball. Here’s what the audience can expect:
A number of seniors departed from last year’s group, which has had head coach John Kennedy scrambling to decide who among this year’s crop will go where.
Hector Rivera, Tay Harling, Ethan Oliver and Luke Short all are gone, and with them the bulk of Kenai’s pitching.
“We have numbers, but we’ll see what happens when finals and eligibility hit,” Kennedy said. “We have about 35 guys out right now, and only three or four of them have played a lot, so the rest are kind of inexperienced.”
The two returning Kenai seniors are Dallas Pierren and Miles Jones, and both bring pitching experience.
“Dallas is my best player from last year as far as consistency,” Kennedy said. “He’s going to be a workhorse, and Miles has some pitching but will also get some time in the infield.”
Jones will likely be stationed at second or third base, according to Kennedy.
The remaining seniors all bring limited baseball experience, but all are verified athletes. Nate O’Lena and Ellery Steffensen could be useful infielders, according to Kennedy, while Isaac Mese and Sam Combs should do well in the batting lineup.
“It’s a tough sport to learn in a hurry, it takes awhile,” Kennedy said. “If they work hard, we’ll find someplace to go. I can put them in a position to get them there, and they can do the rest. It’ll definitely be a team game this year.”
Last year, the Kardinals went 6-3 in the conference and in the league to earn the second seed from the Southern Division. Ultimately, they lost to Kodiak in the NLC tournament second-place game.
“We were two runs from going to state two years in a row, so our goal will be to get back there,” Kennedy said. “It’s a frustrating thing for us, because we just don’t know how we’ll look until we play those teams. Hopefully in next three weeks we can get everything lined up.”
The Kards get up to bat against Homer on April 29, followed by their first home game of the season May 1 against Soldotna.
Like Kenai, rival SoHi is sporting a new look in 2014 as well.
Gone are catcher Shayne Miller, an All-Conference player in 2012, starting pitcher Tyler Fritz and infielder Gavin Larson. But, second-year head coach George Stein said a core nucleus of the team is back.
“I’d like to say our strength is pitching,” Stein said. “There are four pitchers coming back that threw some last year, and another two that threw on the JV team.”
Senior Max Conradi returns on the pitching mound, and will join sophomores Kenny Griffin, Tyler Covey, Mason Pryor, junior Justice Miller and senior Cody Harvey.
“All of these guys can pitch,” Stein said. “When one of them is pitching, we’ll have the others in the outfield or infield. We have numbers that we didn’t have last year, so even beyond those guys, a good half dozen could fill in and be adequate.”
At the catcher’s position will be Kenny Griffin, with backup David Rue.
The Stars went 2-7 in the conference last year to earn the fourth seed from the Southern Division. This year, Stein said they hope to capture their first state berth since 2011, and with a season of experience coaching Soldotna, he believes he understands exactly what it’ll take to get there.
“I think I have a little better attitude with the players,” Stein said. “They know me a little better, I definitely know them a little better. I’ve learned to be flexible, move players around.”
The Stars open their season May 1 at Kenai, and play their first home game May 6 against Homer.
Mark Putney has taken over head coaching duties for the Mariners from Larry Kuhns, and brings experience as a pitcher for Division III George Fox University.
Coincidentally, Putney played for the Kodiak Bears, and pitched against Homer in the 2005 NLC championship game, which Homer won 8-7.
As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them.
“I never thought I’d coach Homer, never in my wildest dreams,” Putney said.
Putney said he still vividly remembers that title game against the Mariners, and recounted that after the loss, he found a quiet place to sit and think.
“I sat there after that game for a couple hours and just stared at the mountains, feeling depressed,” Putney said. “Homer was usually our toughest competition, it was usually us, them or Wasilla, so there wasn’t a whole lot of love lost.
“That year, we did beat Homer during the season and I try not to bring it up with (Kuhns). I sometimes subtly point out we beat them other years.”
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, just a week after the win against Kodiak. The Mariners last made the trip to state in 2009.
“If we can split with our conference opponents, especially on the road, we’ll be in a good spot,” Putney said. “My goal is to be in the championship game at the region tournament.”
Last season, Homer rode a 3-4 conference record into the NLC tournament as the No. 3 seed from the Southern division, and was eliminated by Kenai in the tournament second-place bracket.
Fortunately for the Mariners, senior catcher Willy Deaver was about all they lost to graduation. The 2014 squad only has two seniors, but is rounded out by a “solid group of juniors in the infield,” according to Putney.
Tommy Bowe will replace Deaver as catcher and, if past seasons are indicative, will also bring the power in the batting lineup as one of Homer’s best hitters. Bowe was also a First Team All-Conference member last year.
Putney said he has been stressing his team to play small ball this season, opting for bunts and hits that will put the ball in play, instead of trying for home runs, triples and doubles. He believes he has the roster to do that.
“We haven’t adopted the ‘Moneyball’ approach yet,” Putney said. “I think we have decent depth in our starting nine.”
A good rotation of pitchers should also aid Homer. Senior Nahoa Jette headlines that list, followed by names such as Wiley Donich, Kyle Johnson, Brandon Beachy, JJ Sonnen and Sheldon Hutt.
Putney said the infield should look something like this: Hutt at first base, Beachy at second, Sonnen at shortstop, Donich at third, and Owen Delehanty and Evan Boyer in the outfield.
Since he holds game experience on the mound, Putney is hoping to put that knowledge to good use as head coach.
“I think I have something to draw from,” he said. “I was able to have some good coaches in high school and college, and there are some things I had to figure out on my own, like a changeup grip and wrist position.”
Homer begins its season against Kodiak, appropriately, on April 25. That’ll give Putney a chance to catch up with some of his old buds.
“It’s always interesting to go there, they give me a hard time,” he said.
The Mariners’ opening home game of the year is May 2 against Colony.