The first Northern Lights Conference softball tournament will always be memorable for the Homer Mariners, even if some of the details are a little hazy after a long day of softball.
Starting at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, tournament host Homer had to play four games to win the title, with the last out coming a little shy of 10:30 p.m.
And, naturally, the marathon transpired in the best early “summer” weather Homer has to offer, with temperatures never getting above 48 degrees, the wind blowing about 15 to 20 knots, and some light hail and rain mixed in.
“I’m really impressed with them, especially with half of them being freshmen,” Homer coach Bill Bell said of his team. “They showed they can battle back, suck it up and go for it.
“You can’t ask for much better training than that.”
Homer’s route to the championship was made more difficult when the Mariners lost the 12:30 p.m. game to Soldotna 16-5 in six innings. Bell said the seniors were honored before the game and his squad got off to a slow start and never recovered.
That victory gave Soldotna its second straight state berth and gave the Stars a spot in the championship.
The Mariners fell into the playback bracket and topped Kodiak 18-3 in three innings to get to the championship with Soldotna and earn a state berth, a 16th in 17 years for the program.
Briana Hetrick pitched three innings and gave up three runs — two earned — on three hits while walking three and striking out four.
On offense, Mary Hana Bowe — the tourney MVP — was 2 for 2 with three runs and three RBIs, Elsie Smith was 4 for 4 with three runs and three RBIs, Malina Fellows was 3 for 3 with four RBIs and two runs, Kaitlyn Johnson was 2 for 3 with two runs and three RBIs, Annali Metz had two runs, Annalynn Brown had two runs and Becca Chapman was 2 for 3 with two runs and three RBIs.
Since the tournament was double elimination, Homer would have to beat Soldotna twice in the championship.
Homer won the first game 17-16 in an epic battle that went nine innings. Both Bell and SoHi coach Kelli Knoebel could not have asked for better preparation for state.
“Kelli and I talked after that first game and after the second game,” Bell said. “Nothing but good for both teams can come from being in a game like that.”
SoHi had gutted out a victory in a similar marathon game Friday, a 19-18 win over Kodiak in seven innings.
“This weekend really showed the character of the kids,” Knoebel said. “They never counted themselves out when it kept going back and forth.”
Homer led 2-0 after one inning and 5-2 after two innings before SoHi tied it in the top of the third. Both teams scored three runs in the fourth and fifth innings before Soldotna went up 13-11 in the top of the sixth.
The Mariners were able to tie the game at 13 in the bottom of the seventh. That forced international tiebreaker rules, which puts a runner at second to start each inning. Both teams got two in the eighth, then SoHi got one in the ninth.
Fellows started the ninth on second, and Johnson, a freshman who led the team with a .714 average in the tournament, singled to put runners on first and third. Metz bunted in one run and got Johnson to third. Hetrick hit a fly to center deep enough to score the winning run, but the ball was dropped anyway.
“We made a couple mistakes in various parts of the game,” Knoebel said. “Those are things we can learn from as we prepare for next week.”
Brown pitched 8 2-3 innings for Homer, giving up 12 runs — four earned — on 12 hits, while Hetrick recorded an out while giving up two runs.
For Soldotna, Danielle Hills pitched 8 1-3, giving up 15 runs on 17 hits. Both Bell and Knoebel said Hills came of age as a pitcher in the tournament, with Knoebel adding that Carlin Meyer was key as catcher, and the whole team got behind Hills.
“I think she found within herself what we’ve always seen,” Knoebel said. “She stepped up and put the team on her back. She pitched some amazing games.”
For Homer, Bowe was 5 for 6 with four runs, while Smith had four runs, Fellows had two hits and two RBIs, Brown had two RBIs, Johnson was 5 for 5 with three runs and two RBIs, Metz had three RBIs, Hetrick had two hits and three RBIs, and Rylee Doughty had two hits and two runs.
For SoHi, Jazi Larrow had two hits and two runs, Ashley McDonald had two hits and two runs, Darcy Blume had two hits and two RBIs, Hills had three runs, Meyer had three runs, Tara Lynn Frates had two RBIs, Alicia McClelland was 2 for 3 with two runs and two RBIs and Casey Earll had two RBIs.
Homer then won the next game 12-4 in five innings. Metz got the win, pitching all five and giving up four earned runs on four hits.
Lauren McCabe pitched four innings for the Stars, yielding 10 runs on five hits. Knoebel said it was the best McCabe pitched all season and a big step forward for her.
Hills and some other SoHi starters were held out in the game with the state tournament in mind.
“My kids were freezing cold,” Knoebel said. “That first game didn’t just take a toll physically, it was tough mentally, emotionally and psychologically. We were tired and hurting.”
For Homer, Bowe had two hits and two RBIs, while Johnson had two runs and two RBIs, Hetrick had two RBIs, Brown had two runs and Doughty had two runs.
The offensive highlight for the Stars came from foreign exchange student Mira Jradi, who got a hit and scored.
“She’ll be in Lebanon in two weeks and in her last ever experience with softball she gets a hit and scores,” Knoebel said. “She was instrumental on the bench.
“It was cool to see all the kids really grow and believe.”
Knoebel also gave a special tip of the cap to all the fans that braved the elements in snowmachine gear to support the team.