John Kennedy stood next to the third-base dugout at Kenai Little League fields on blustery afternoon, looking toward the outfield.
"I grew up playing on this field," he said. "The opportunity for these guys to play baseball, although it's cold, it's really exciting."
Kenai Central will field a baseball team for the first time in school history, joining Homer and Soldotna in the Northern Lights Conference for a 2011 season that also brings a new postseason format.
Each squad in the eight-team NLC will qualify for an end-of-season tournament, which will be single-elimination. Two squads will advance to state from the bracket, and teams will be seeded No. 1 through No. 8 based on regular-season records.
In previous seasons, the top two finishers during the regular season received automatic bids to state because there was no conference tournament.
The change also means teams are required to play division opponents at least once.
"I think it's a positive thing," first-year SoHi coach Roger Phillips said. "It's important that the regular season matter, but ultimately it comes down to how good you are at the end of the season."
Meanwhile, Homer welcomes back Larry Kuhns, who took last season off after coaching the Mariners to five conference championships between 2000 and 2007.
The following is a closer look at Kenai Central, Homer and SoHi:
Kenai Central Kardinals
Kennedy is the first to admit the Kards are a cast of unknowns.
Although some of the 27 players in the program played summer ball last year, many of them haven't stepped on the field since Little League. Others have never played.
"We gotta teach the kids basic skills," said Kennedy, who teaches at Kenai Central. "I'm teaching them how to throw, how to catch, how to hit. We're teaching them everything."
Kennedy expects AJ Hull, Dylan Sterling, Ethan Oliver, Hector Rivera and Tanner Landry to carry the load, with the supporting cast competing for starting positions.
Hull and Sterling figure to be the top two pitchers, Kennedy said, with Hull playing shortstop and Sterling roaming center field.
The Kards feature a combined 12 freshmen and sophomores, meaning the emphasis for Kennedy is on teaching the fundamentals.
With the opener about a week away, Kennedy is scrambling to finalize his depth chart. He won't finalize the roster until he is more familiar with the personnel.
The team spent most of practice Friday raking the field and stepped on it for drills for the first time Saturday.
"We are starting from scratch," Kennedy said. "Have we made decisions yet? No. Not anything like that at all. I have an idea, but nothing official."
Although Kennedy anticipates a sharp learning curve for the first-year squad, the mood around practice was one of excitement.
For the players, it was nice to finally step on the field.
"Just glad to be out here," Sterling said. "We need to keep working hard and improving and getting better in practice."
Phillips, a longtime central Kenai Peninsula resident, is building toward the future at SoHi.
The Stars return key players Shayne Miller, Josiah Covey, Mitchell Daugherty and welcome Tyler Fritz, a transfer from Kansas.
The first-year coach said those athletes will be instrumental in filling the gaps left by the departure of Braden Price, Steven Steger and DJ Stilchen.
Still, he said, no starting spot is guaranteed.
"The first thing is every position is open," said Phillips, who has 19 players. "You're fighting for every position. With the size of our squad, our guys have to learn to play many positions. We need to be flexible."
The pitching staff will include Covey and a cast of unproven arms. Jarrett Urban and Fritz will compete for innings, Phillips said.
"They are untested, let's say that," Phillips said. "Josiah is the only proven one at the varsity level. The rest of them haven't seen the mound very much."
With the new postseason format, Phillips said he hopes the Stars mesh at the right time.
It's important to win games during the regular season, he said, but the ultimate goal is to qualify for state. All it takes to do that is a good streak of baseball at the conference tournament.
"I would say we are real positive about the future," Phillips said, crediting his coaching staff. "We are really big on setting up this program and getting our kids to buy into the type of baseball we want them to play."
Kuhns returns as coach after a three-year hiatus and already knows who will take the field on Opening Day.
Leading the way for the Mariners is Asa Stage, a hard-throwing pitcher and a player who Kuhns said can play just about anywhere. Brothers Brian and Kevin Rowe also will be key athletes, joining a group of newcomers and a few other returners, the coach said.
Kuhns believes the squad can finish atop the standings if it plays to its potential.
"The guys are extremely committed, very high character," Kuhns said. "This team appears to be as good as any of the other teams we had that were very competitive, that won regions and won our league."
"With the new additions, though, only time will tell."
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