The top of the food chain in the Southcentral Conference baseball field will be getting a curveball this spring.
As the 2017 high school baseball season opens this week, a number of roster changes have reshaped the landscape in the conference that includes all Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna valleys teams.
Last year’s region champions Wasilla was hit hardest by graduating seniors. Starting lefty Nolan Monaghan and catcher Jeffrey Forster combined for a formidable battery in 2016, leading the Wasilla Warriors to an undefeated third straight Southcentral Conference championship. Monaghan and Forster ended up sharing the conference North Division MVP honors, but both are gone this year to graduation.
Also gone this year is the conference South Division MVP Joey Becher of Soldotna, one of the top pitchers from the peninsula. SoHi also lost one of its other First Team All-Conference members in catcher Kenny Griffin, as well as Second Team All-Conference outfielder Calvin Hills.
Homer lost three significant seniors from last year in catcher Greg Smith, infielder Michael Swoboda and center fielder Kyle Johnson.
So where does that leave teams in terms of competitiveness? It’s anybody’s guess at this point.
“The unknown is the biggest question mark,” said SoHi coach Robb Quelland. “The old saying is, on paper, we look really good, but we have not been on a baseball field yet.”
Kenai Central remains the only local team that didn’t lose a solid chunk of starting seniors. In fact, the freshest face on the roster may be rookie head coach Steven Nimcheski, who enters his first year with the Kardinals.
“I think we have multiple all-conference guys on our team this year who have pretty good experience,” Nimcheski said. “Those guys are looking forward to their senior season and going out on top.”
Homer coach Rich Sonnen said the American Legion season has helped his squad stay competitive in recent years. Sonnen said the Mariners had four players out for the Legion Twins program last summer after years of having just one or two players continuing their season.
“Our biggest asset is more guys are playing legion ball than in the past,” Sonnen said.
While several schools lost talent, others are building up to a title run, and others are just beginning. This year, Grace Christian in Anchorage will field a varsity baseball team for the first time.
All three coaches pointed out that with no true games under their belts this year, it is difficult to make out who is an early favorite for the Southcentral Conference title, which will be decided May 25 to 27 at Herman Brothers Field in Palmer.
The following is a closer look at the three peninsula baseball teams:
Quelland, the 2016 Southcentral Conference Coach of the Year, said he would like to see his Stars back in the state tournament, but with a win or two. Last year, SoHi stumbled with an 0-2 showing at state.
“I think we were just in awe of being there,” Quelland said. “It’s still just new, everything was new, it was an overwhelming experience.
“I think most of these kids will be ready to go the second trip back.”
Soldotna rolled through the conference’s South Division in 2016 with a 9-1 conference record, but lost to Wasilla 5-0 in the Southcentral championship game. The Stars were able to beat Kenai in the tournament second-place game to punch their ticket to state.
The Stars open their season Tuesday at home against Homer, then play a series of important nonconference games next weekend against Houston and Wasilla.
SoHi lost South Division MVP Joey Becher, an ace pitcher that now plays college ball at Treasure Valley (Oregon) Community College, catcher Kenny Griffin and outfielder Calvin Hills, as well as Mason Prior and Kolten Wilson.
Hills, who scored the game-winning run for the Legion Twins in last July’s championship game, is back as an assistant pitching coach, Quelland said, but the Stars pitching rotation may be already set. Eight of the 12 varsity players on this year’s team have played Legion ball.
With that, Quelland said the goal is to make a deep state run.
“It’s always the same, we want to win state,” he said. “It’s a lofty goal, but we’re starting the season out undefeated, and someone’s gonna have to beat us.”
Leading the Stars from the mound this year will be senior Matthew Daugherty, who will be caught by junior Cody Quelland. Both played significant roles with last year’s state championship Twins team, and Daugherty is signed to pitch at Division II Salem International (West Virginia) University.
Quelland said Daugherty’s mental approach from the mound gives him a variety of pitches that can retire batters.
“He’s not a traditional hurler, he’s more like a Greg Maddux,” Quelland said. “I’d put him in the top percentage of pitchers in the state of Alaska.”
Daugherty will be joined by a rotating cast that includes juniors Caleb Spence and relief pitcher Hunter Thompson. Junior Joel Sisson will join Quelland in catching duties.
The infield will feature a cast that includes senior Terrance Slats, senior Austin Asp and swing player Tanner Ussing, a freshman. Sophomores Jeremy Kupferschmid and David Michael will patrol the outfield with Spence.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Kenai’s baseball team returns the most of its previous starting lineup, including First Team All-Conference pitcher Gavin Petterson and outfielder Paul Steffensen, a powerful hitter. Both players are signed to play college ball next year.
“Gavin is our number one pitcher, but our entire pitching rotation is very strong,” said new head coach Steven Nimcheski. “And some people are saying that Paul is in the top tier of players in the state.”
Nimcheski, an English and science teacher at KCHS, arrived in Kenai last August to take on the head baseball job after years spent in his native state of Michigan. Nimcheski enters this season with five years of coaching prep ball in Michigan.
After going 4-6 in conference play last year, Kenai lost its opening game of the Region III tournament to Colony, but advanced through the elimination bracket with wins over Houston, Homer and Colony — the latter two being one-run nailbiters — before falling to Soldotna in the final second-place game.
Nimcheski said former Kards coach John Kennedy will still be involved from the sidelines, and said he believes that Kenai will be more competitive this year.
“I think we have a shot to move beyond regions,” Nimcheski said. “Our pitching rotation is deep enough, we have experience with so many returning seniors who already have a few tourneys under their belt between legion, travel ball and scouting camps. I think we’ve set that goal to get to state.
“It’s good when you’ve got college level talent in your first four hitters and pitching mound.”
Kenai’s batting lineup is senior-heavy, with seven of the nine entering their fourth season at Kenai.
Senior Steven Norvelle and Zach Selinger will complement Petterson on the mound, while Nimcheski said he hasn’t decided on a steady catcher yet.
Beyond that, Nimcheski said his infield and outfield crew is still being pieced together while the baseball diamonds around town continue to dry out.
“Mother Nature dealt us a winter where we knew our first game (Friday) was going to be pushed back,” Nimcheski said.
Kenai opens its season April 28 against Houston and Palmer on April 29.
Coach Sonnen said the Mariners are on a hunt for one of the top two seeds in the Southcentral Conference.
“That’s our first checkpoint on our list,” Sonnen said. “We’ll have to make weekly adjustments to see what we got to do to get there.”
Homer finished 4-6 in the conference in 2016 to grab the second seed in the conference on a tiebreaker. The Mariners lost three big seniors in Smith, Swoboda and Johnson, but still return up-and-coming talent. Sonnen said Smith’s teaching to sophomore catcher Seth Adkins went a long way in bringing the younger player up to speed.
“It’s hard to say right now, we haven’t been on the field just yet,” Sonnen said about the team’s potential. “The guys are looking sharp.”
Senior Garrett Butcher returns to lead Homer’s pitching rotation, which will also include juniors Adam Brinster and Joe Ravin.
Brinster will also get time at first base, while Ravin will be a regular shortstop and second baseman. Douglas Bean could also see time at short, when he’s not relief pitching. Mose Hayes will also be a reliever.
Homer opens its season Tuesday at Soldotna.