The Kenai Senior Little Leaguers snatched victory from the jaws of defeat Saturday, defeating Palmer 9-8 in the opening round of the District 1 tournament at the Kenai Little League fields.
Kenai advances in the winners’ bracket to play Kodiak, a 12-5 winner over Anchorage West, today at 7 p.m. at the Kenai Little League fields. Palmer will play Anchorage West at 7 p.m. at Coral Seymour Memorial Park.
“It was a very good game. The kids played through some adversity. They had some errors in the early innings. They got down and they came back,” said Kenai coach Roger Hughes.
Kenai, the visiting team in Saturday’s game, trailed Palmer 7-6 entering the top of the seventh and final inning. Kenai managed to load the bases with one out on a single by John Hughes, a base on balls by Gabe O’Lena, and a bunt Ryan Wehrli that was fielded by the Palmer first baseman, who chased Hughes back to third rather than trying to get the out at first.
Zach Moore then hit a hard grounder to second base, and the throw home went to the backstop, allowing two runs to score.
Kenai added one more run on a groundout by Brian Denesen.
Palmer made it interesting in the bottom of the seventh. Leadoff hitter Sterling Nielson scored on a wild pitch after singling and advancing on an interference call.
Kenai cut down another baserunner at second after he tried to stretch a single down the right field line into a double, and O’Lena struck out the final two batters to end the game.
“Coming from behind, it feels great,” Wehrli said. “Everything started clicking those last two innings.”
Kenai hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to get everything to click this season. Hughes said the senior squad played just 10 games leading up to the district tournament.
“It’s not as many as normal. There’s very few senior teams this year, so we got as many games as we could,” Hughes said.
According to O’Lena and Wehrli, putting aside high school rivalries and learning to play together on the same team was an important step this season, one they said the coaches spent some time discussing in practice.
“We’re still climbing,” Wehrli said of the team’s progress.
“We still have some work to do, but by the end of this tournament, we should be doing pretty well,” O’Lena said.
Justin Wik started the game on the mound for Kenai, working 5 2/3 innings.
Wehrli came on to relieve Wik in the bottom of the sixth with runners at second and third and two out, and got a grounder to short to end the inning.
After giving up seven runs in the first three innings, the Kenai defense settled down. Kenai turned a double-play to get out of the fourth inning without giving up a run.
Hughes said he was most pleased with the team’s performance at the plate, pointing to Moore’s effort in the top of the seventh.
“We had some kids come through that had been in a slump,” Hughes said.
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