Homer softball tops Soldotna, clinches state berth

The Homer softball team clinched a state berth with a 3-2, eight-inning victory over Soldotna on Wednesday at the Soldotna Little League fields.

The state berth is the 13th in the 14-year history of the program.

Homer and Kodiak tie for the top spot in the Northern Lights Conference with 6-2 records. Since the Bears and Mariners split this season in conference play, Homer coach Bill Bell said the NLC’s top seed at state will likely come down to a coin flip.

Had Homer lost Wednesday, it would have left the door open for Soldotna (3-4 in the NLC) and Skyview (3-3 in the NLC) to earn a state berth, but now the Stars and Panthers are eliminated from state contention.

The softball season on the central Kenai Peninsula concludes with SoHi vs. Skyview today at 4 p.m. at the Soldotna Little League fields, and Skyview vs. Kenai at 4 p.m. Friday at the Soldotna Little League fields.

The Mariners were able to come back and claim a state berth despite starting the year with 13 straight losses, although only one of those setbacks was a conference affair.

“They were playing tough competition, but I hadn’t planned on losing everything,” Bell said. “I thought we would win a third of them.

“I’m impressed that all the girls stayed up even though we started the season 0-13.”

Homer also had to battle from behind against the Stars to clinch the state berth.

The Mariners took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first when Kayla Stafford reached on a single, stole a pair of bases, and scored on a passed ball.

But SoHi came right back with two runs in the bottom of the first. With one out, Jessica Hanna reached on a fielder’s choice and Serena Prior singled. Kenley Kingrey then walked to load the bases.

After Homer pitcher McKi Needham recorded a strikeout, Delaney Schneider poked a ball to right field to score a pair of runs. Bell said his second baseman should have caught the ball, but it was scored a hit by the home team.

After the first, SoHi pitcher Prior and Needham dueled for the rest of the game.

Both went all eight innings. Needham allowed six hits while striking out seven and walking just one. Bell said Needham was not as sharp as she was in a Tuesday win over Kenai, but he was happy with the way she battled through the game.

Prior allowed only six hits and no walks while striking out seven.

“You had two pitchers that were basically controlling,” Soldotna coach Kelli Knoebel said. “Serena was great again for me.

“She didn’t have more than five batters per inning. When that happens, you are pitching a great game.”

Homer got the equalizer in the fifth inning. Lauren Kuhns reached on an infield single, moved to second on a wild pitch and to third on a ground-out. Maggie LaRue then came up with a two-out single to score her.

In the eighth, Stafford started the game-winning rally with a one-out single and then stole second.

Needham then flew out to left field. The ball was thrown to Prior, who tried to get Stafford going back to second. The ball got away and Stafford came all the way around to score the winning run.

“It was a great idea to try and get that girl out, but unfortunately the ball got into center field,” Knoebel said. “They got a run, and we couldn’t push one across.”

It was a strange way to win, but Bell will certainly take the win.

“That was after we gave them a few runs in the first inning,” he said.

Mary Hanna Bowe added a pair of hits for the Mariners. She was one of four JV players that got into the game. The JV team only lost once this year, in a close game to East.

“I’m already excited about next year,” Bell said.

Knoebel said the Stars will still be up for today, when seniors Allison Nelson, Prior and Kenley Kingrey will be honored, and the final chapter will be written in the Soldotna-Skyview rivalry.

“To me, every game matters,” Knoebel said.

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