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Friday softball: Soldotna eliminated at Division II state

Stars look to use experience as building block to success

The Soldotna softball team was eliminated from the Division II state softball tournament in Fairbanks after losing the first two games in the double-elimination bracket Friday.

The Stars (21-14) fell 14-0 to Kodiak in four innings, then 16-0 to Delta in three innings.

In the Kodiak game, Isabelle Cruz had the lone hit for the Stars. Cruz gave up 11 runs on 12 hits in three innings, while Kiara Forkner gave up a run on three hits in an inning.

In the Delta game, Tatum Cooper, Cruz and Kathryn DeBardelaben had the hits for the Stars.

DeBardelaben gave up 16 runs on 16 hits in two innings.

Soldotna also took a pair of losses in the round-robin portion of the tourney Thursday, but head coach Kelli Knoebel had no problem calling the season a success.

Knoebel returned to the head coaching role for Soldotna this season and led the team to its first state berth since 2017.

She said the team was able to get the academic award at the tournament with a 3.6 grade-point average.

“We did come away with an award where we’re showing up in the classroom, and that means that we are strong women that are ready to continue to grow throughout our high school career and make positive changes in the world,” Knoebel said. “This is just one weekend. We will grow and will be better for it.”

The state is not as far ahead of the Stars as the team’s performance at state suggests. Kodiak finished runner-up at the tournament.

The weekend before at the Northern Lights Conference tournament, SoHi faced the Bears three times, winning 22-12 before losing 16-13 and 11-9.

Knoebel said there are a number of factors that could explain what happened at state. She said they are not excuses as much as they are things to learn from in the future.

For starters, nobody on the team had the previous experience of playing so many games, then capping it with a state appearance.

“My hats off to the kids on being able to endure in a season where we played over 30 games,” Knoebel said. “I remember the last time we went to state. I think we played eight games.”

Knoebel said the team had just one home weekend all season. The last weekend of the regular season found the Stars in the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, as did the conference tournament.

Then came the drive to Fairbanks, where the temperatures were in the 70s and topped out at 78.

“We got back here Sunday, and it felt cold,” Knoebel said.

Toss in the fact that the Stars were banged up and had a few players out of the lineup, and the factors were there for the state performance.

“Our kids see that we were there with them in the regional tournament,” Knoebel said of the Bears. “You can look at the little things you can grow on, and I think the kids have that hunger.

“They were already saying, ‘Hey coach, we need to work on this.’”

Soldotna will also return plenty of talent after losing graduated seniors Kadee Adams, Forkner and Bailey Conner.

Knoebel said she coached Forkner and Conner as freshmen. She said the three are all amazing in the classroom, headed off to college to pursue fields like medicine, engineering and kinesiology.

“The three seniors really led us and showed resilience and toughness, and what it takes to be a stellar athlete,” Knoebel said. “But I think they also showed what it takes to be a stellar student.

“Every one of those kids is going to college to do great things. And they led the team this year. And that leadership will definitely pass down to the junior class that’s going to step up and be leaders.”

Knoebel said the key now is to find opportunities for the young players to get better despite having busy summers and school years.

“All the younger kids wanted to stay because they wanted to experience the entire tournament,” Knoebel said. “They wanted to see what it is they need to do in the offseason to get better.

“That’s the fun part. That’s the part where you get to work in the offseason and continue to perfect your craft.”

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