With nine returning seniors, the Mariner baseball team will take to the field Tuesday in their opening game against Kenai with strength, speed and experience.
Rich Sonnen, the Mariners’ head coach and father of senior co-captain J.J. Sonnen, has coached many of the players through Little League since they were 4-years-old. He says the skill and drive his experienced players bring to the field bodes well for the team’s success this season.
“This is our best shot we’ve had in a while,” he said.
Assistant coach Mark Brinster agreed that the large cohort of dedicated upperclassmen have set the bar high with their proven work ethic, serving as inspirational mentors to the younger players who are still adjusting to the demands of high school athletics.
“The older players work real hard. They are real fun, good guys, and great role models,” he said.
With experience and strength comes speed, and the team intends to capitalize on their quick-footed advantage.
“We have a lot of team speed, we plan to steal a lot of bases. We need to work together, use our strength together,” said senior co-captain Brandon Beachy.
Sonnen recognized early on that he had a fast team on his hands, an “offensive tool” he intends to keep in his back pocket by calling plays to bunt and steal. However, over the past month of practice the team has been focusing on building on its weak spots, namely hitting.
During the players’ spring break Sonnen brought in Todd Coburn, a former major league baseball player, to lead a clinic focusing on hitting techniques. Since the clinic, and with the continued emphasis on batting, Sonnen said he’s seen much improvement in his players.
Within Alaska there are no divisions in high school baseball for small or large schools, so the Mariners will face tough competition throughout the season. Sonnen expects Palmer, Colony, and Wasilla to be the most challenging opponents, with the Anchorage schools putting up a tough fight at the state competition.
J.J. Sonnen pointed out that the seniors have not made it past Regions in their tenure at HHS, and they aspire to make it to the state competition this year.
“Our goal is always to hang a banner,” he said.
Coach Sonnen has similar goals for the team: he hopes to finish first in the southern conference against Kenai, Soldotna and Kodiak, propelling the team to the state competition in June.
Although this is Sonnen’s first year as the Mariners’ head coach (he spent the last four years as assistant coach), he recognizes that for the team’s large group of seniors, it’s a grand finale. With that notion in mind, he aspires to make the lessons his players learn at practice apply more broadly than the outfield.
“I realize most of these guys won’t play beyond high school,” he said. “I’m trying to develop a total athlete and a total person. … We’re not just preparing for the season, we’re preparing for life as well.”
Sonnen tells his players that the best baseball players in the world fail 70 percent of the time. He believes important lessons can be learned from accepting and learning from the failure inherent in the game. The lonely focus required in the outfield, the balance between individual and team play, and the accountability of showing up every day are all lessons he hopes his players will take with them when they graduate.
Brinster agreed. “Failure is not an easy thing to learn. …I tell the boys, practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent,” he said.
The Mariners play their first game of the season against the Kardinals in Kenai on Tuesday. Their first home game, scheduled for May 4 against Soldotna, is contingent on drier weather — there is currently an inch of water pooled on the home field. Sonnen says the muddy struggle against wet spring weather is an annual challenge, but he’s optimistic the dirt will dry out soon. The team has been practicing on the turf field and in the gym to leave their field as undisturbed as possible until competition begins.
Lindsay Olsen is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.
Watch them play
4/28 Mariners v Kenai @ Kenai, 7 p.m.
5/1 Mariners v. Colony, away
5/2 Mariners v. Wasilla, away
5/4 Mariners v. Soldotna @ Homer, 7 p.m.