The accolades won by the Homer softball team are plenty — three straight Northern Lights Conference titles and 19 state appearances in the last 20 years — but winning state has always been a tough goal to reach.
Homer has a state softball championship from 2006, but only a handful of near misses outside of that to show for its impressive run of state appearances. In order to break that 13-year drought, the Mariners could use a hot streak.
Fortunately, they are currently riding one.
The Mariners dominated last week’s Northern Lights Conference tournament, winning three games by a combined score of 35-6 and running away with the title over Kodiak. It has Homer head coach Bill Bell feeling good as the final weekend of the year approaches.
“Things are really clicking right now,” Bell said.
The Division II state softball tournament gets under way today with pool play at Cartee Fields in Anchorage. The field is split into two three-team groupings, Pool A and Pool B.
In Pool A, Homer plays two games Thursday, against Ketchikan at 10 a.m. and Hutchison at 2:45 p.m. Pool B is comprised of Delta Junction, Sitka and Kodiak.
From there, teams will need to play and win at least three games to claim the Div. II crown. The top two teams from Pool A and B will get a one-game bye Friday, while the other four will begin bracket play Friday morning. A loss sends you to the loser-out bracket.
The battle for the Div. II championship gets under way Saturday at 2:45 p.m. If the team that emerged from the loser-out bracket wins, then an “If-necessary” title game will be played.
They say hitting is contagious, and Homer’s stat line certainly proves that entering the tournament. Eight qualified players — essentially the entire starting lineup — are hitting over .400 this year, a list that includes Grace Godfrey, Kaitlyn Johnson, Haylee Owen, Annalynn Brown, Brianna Hetrick, Kaylin Anderson, Zoe Adkins and Hannah Hatfield.
“They’re banging out hits,” Bell said. “It amazes me, I look at some of their swings and think it’s not great, but they’re getting hits.
“It’s not gymnastics, you don’t need form to get it done.”
Godfrey leads the team in nearly every offensive category, including RBI’s with 34, home runs with three, runs scored with 42 and walks with 22. The slugger is hitting .581, getting on base at .677 and slugging .959.
“I think she’s set and ready to lead the team on,” Bell said.
However, since this is the state tourney and no team is a pushover, Bell said the Mariners may need to rely on other ways to score aside from their power hitting. Bell said the team has ramped up its focus on small ball, working on things like bunting and effective baserunning.
Homer’s pitching staff isn’t bad either. Junior Annalyn Brown has pitched the lions share of innings this season for Homer with 70%, and has crafted an ERA of 4.16. Bell said her focus and grit in the pitching circle has paid dividends for the Mariners this year, and added he expects her to be a huge factor at state.
“She’s just an incredible force,” Bell said. “She gets in the pitching circle and everything else is tuned out. She goes pitch for pitch, we’ll be yelling things from the dugout and she’s not hearing it. When something bad happens, it doesn’t even faze her.”
Brown hasn’t lacked at the plate either. She carries a .438 average to state and gets on base more than half the time.
Behind her, freshman Zoe Adkins has been the only other player with significant innings under her belt. When she isn’t pitching, Adkins typically patrols right field, and Bell is happy to have the young star.
“Knowing she’s a freshman makes me even more comfortable,” he said.
As far as the six-team field of contenders, the coaching veteran said one crucial component that could help to pave the way to a state title could be the absence of Thunder Mountain. The defending Div. II champs didn’t even make the cut this year after being knocked off by Ketchikan in the Southeast region tournament. The other state berth from that region was Sitka, which got in by virtue of being the best Southeast team in the regular season.
“Looking at who’s coming to state, it’s not the same intimidating feeling,” Bell said.