The Bears begin the quest for their first championship since 2011 today when the Southcentral Conference Championships begin in Soldotna.
South Division champion Kodiak opens against North Division fourth-seed Palmer at 1 p.m. The winner advances to play either Colony or Kenai tonight in a 7 p.m. semifinal contest.
A pair of wins on opening day would send the Bears to their second-consecutive title game appearance — Kodiak lost to Colony in last year’s championship contest — at 7 p.m. Friday.
Even though Kodiak (12-9 overall) went 9-1 in conference play, James Arnold is expecting his team to be challenged. Wasilla, the North Division champion, also went 9-1.
“The competition in the north is going to be tough — no doubt about it,” Arnold said. “Any one of those teams could beat us ... we are going to have to play sound, fundamental baseball if we are expected to get to that championship game.”
Kodiak went 3-1 in conference play and 0-3 in nonconference games against the north — Wasilla, Colony, Palmer and Houston, the only team to hand Kodiak a conference loss this season.
Kodiak could end up having to beat three North Division teams to capture the title. Up first is Palmer, a team Kodiak beat, 7-4, in the conference game and lost to, 9-4, in a nonconference game.
“I am concerned about Palmer,” Arnold said. “To me, they are a lot better than what their record shows. They are a good baseball team.”
Pitching depth is key when it comes to the conference tournament, and Arnold believes he has enough arms to endure the three games it will take to win the title.
Sophomore Sam Bennett, who has pitched in a pair of varsity games this season, is getting the start against Palmer, which would set up Jakob Arnold and Jon LeVan for the next two games.
Bennett pitched six innings, allowing three hits and two earned runs in a 5-2 loss to Colony in Kodiak’s regular-season finale.
“It is gutsy, but we are going for the win,” Arnold said. “He (Bennett) pitched a heck of a game against Colony. I know he can go out there and get the work done.”
All is not lost if Kodiak losses today, it would just make reaching the state tournament that much harder. The Bears would then have to work its way though the consolation bracket for a chance to play in a 2 p.m. winner-to-state game on Saturday.
The top two teams in the eight-team tournament advances to the state tournament that begins June 5 in Sitka.
For Arnold, it is state or bust for his team that features seven seniors.
“With this team, yes,” he said. “I will be the guy crying on the airplane all the way home if this team doesn’t go to state. They are that good. We got the pitching depth and we just got to go over there and go to work.”
The only thing that could stand in the way of Kodiak is the weather and smoke from the Funny River fire.
Arnold has been assured the smoke should not postpone games, but rain might — rain is in the forecast for all three days of the tournament.
“The only thing I am concerned about is that it is supposed to rain and how can you pray for sunshine when you have forest fires,” Arnold said.
Contact Mirror writer Derek Clarkston at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Southcentral Conference Tournament
Game 1 — No. 2 Colony vs. No. 3 Kenai, 10 a.m.
Game 2 — No. 2 Homer vs. No. 3 Houston, 10 a.m.
Game 3 — No. 1 Wasilla vs. No. 4 Soldotna, 1 p.m.
Game 4 — No. 1 Kodiak vs. No. 4 Palmer, 1 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 2 winner vs. Game 3 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 11 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 4 loser vs. Game 1 loser, 10 a.m.
Game 8 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 10 a.m.
Game 9 — Game 5 loser vs. Game 7 winner, 3 p.m.
Game 10 — Game 6 loser vs. Game 8 winner, 3 p.m.
Game 12 — Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 10 a.m.
Game 13 — Game 11 loser vs. Game 12 winner, 1 p.m.