Riding a season-high six-game winning streak, Homer coach Bill Bell is feeling good headed into the Division II state softball tournament today, Friday and Saturday at the South Davis Park Complex in Fairbanks.
“I’m just pretty excited about this team,” said Bell, coach of a Homer program that is making its 18th state appearance in its 19 years of existence. “At the beginning of the year, we didn’t know how they would develop.
“The underclassmen pulled this together into a cohesive team.”
The benefit of youth is the players can improve dramatically over the course of the season. Homer (14-10 overall) has done just that.
“When I was filling out the roster for state, I kept putting in ninth- and 10th-graders,” Bell said.
He said the state roster includes 14 players and about 10 are freshmen or sophomores. The lone seniors going to state are Libby Fabich and Sam Moonin.
The young team has kept Homer’s dominance of the Northern Lights Conference going strong. Last weekend, the Mariners won the NLC tournament in Kodiak and now have won or tied for every NLC title except two since 2005.
But Bell, whose squad won the state title in 2006, would like to reverse a recent trend at state.
The Mariners were second in 2011 and 2012 before finishing third in 2013, 2014 and 2015. In 2016 and 2017, Homer went two-and-out in bracket play.
Bell said he has put a lot of focus on hitting to try and reverse that trend.
A big part of getting more wins at state will be learning to defeat Southeast schools, which have won every state title since 2009. Bell said he has been researching the game scores of Southeast schools this season and said they didn’t look as intimidating as years past.
“I still think they’re the odds-on favorite,” he said.
A day of Thursday pool play will be used to seed the championship bracket, which will take place Friday and Saturday. Today, Homer faces Delta Junction at noon and Ketchikan at 5 p.m.
Homer has faced just one non-NLC Division II state team this season, losing 7-2 to North Pole on May 12. But Bell pointed out he played that game with half of his junior varsity on the field.
NLC MVP Annalyn Brown will have to continue to excel at state for the Mariners to find success. On the mound, Brown has pitched 79 2-3 innings of the 105 2-3 innings Homer has played this season.
Brown, who pitched every inning of the NLC tournament despite a nonrelenting rain, has an ERA of 5.45 while fellow pitchers Becca Chapman and Brianna Hetrick both have ERAs over 10.
“She’s going to have to carry a big load, but Becca Chapman and Brianna Hetrick can come in and throw some innings,” Bell said.
The coach also said the pitchers can expect help from their teammates.
“Annalyn is not a huge strikeout pitcher, but the defense behind her has really come together,” Bell said.
Brown also will be vital on offense, where she leads the team with a .490 average. Also for the Mariners, Hetrick is hitting .450 and Grace Godfrey is hitting .458, with both tied for the team lead in RBIs at 30.
“Everybody will help out on offense,” Bell said. “Grace Godfrey and Brianna will be there, and even the bottom of the order can carry us through games.”
Bell’s biggest concern, though definitely tongue in cheek, is the weather. After a cold, wet spring on the Kenai Peninsula followed by the constant rain of the NLC tourney in Kodiak, the Mariners will confront temperatures in the 60s and 70s and scattered showers in Fairbanks.
“They didn’t complain at all about the freezing rain,” Bell said. “They’ll probably get up there and think it’s too hot.”