Mariners chase elusive state softball title

When a team punches its ticket to a statewide tournament 14 times in a 15-year span, is there really anything to complain about?

Maybe if only one of those years ends with a state championship.

As the Homer girls softball team prepares for its 14th state appearance since 2001, the Mariners are still in search of a second state title to go along with the one they captured in 2006. As dominant as Homer has been in conquering the Northern Lights Conference year in and year out, the Mariners have only the one state crown to show for it at the end of the year.

In the nine long years since Homer coach Bill Bell last guided his Mariners to a state championship, the allure of doing it again has been a constant tickle in his mind.

“I think if we can get rid of that mentality of, oh my gosh, (the Southeast teams) are too good, we could do just fine,” Bell said via phone from rainy Fairbanks, where the state tournament is being held.

Bell made no bones in pointing to the Southeast Conference as the powerhouse division in the state. Teams from the Southeast have controlled the small-schools state scene in recent years, winning the small-schools crown in each of the past six years and eight out of 10 since the small-schools division was created in 2005. Sitka owns five of those title belts.

“We’ve always known the road to the podium goes through the Southeast,” Bell said.

So it’s only appropriate that Homer begins its trek for a second softball state crown with a Southeast clash, a 1 p.m. matchup today with Sitka, the No. 2 seed from the Southeast, at the South Davis Park Complex in Fairbanks. Homer and Sitka played in the small-schools final in 2011 and 2012, with Sitka coming up with the win both years. Perhaps the third time’s the charm?

“I like our chances,” Bell said. “I think we can be ready for them.”

The winner will advance to a 3:30 p.m. matchup with North Pole, the top seed from the Mid Alaskan Conference. It will take at least four wins to claim the small-schools state championship, which is slated for 2 p.m. Saturday, pitting the top team from the winner’s bracket against the surviving team from the loser’s bracket. If the loser’s bracket team beats the winner’s bracket team, a second championship game will be played immediately following the conclusion of the first.

A year ago, the Mariners slipped into the state tournament on the heels of a strong finishing kick, winning eight of their last 11 regular season games to finish at 8-16. This year, Homer finished with a pristine 6-0 conference record and 14-3 overall, well ahead of last year’s mark, with losses only to Chugiak, Juneau and Thunder Mountain.

The Mariners enter this weekend on the strength of a nine-game winning streak, and over that span, Homer has won games by an average of 10.4 runs. As pleased as Bell is by that stat, he is also a bit hesitant that his squad hasn’t been tested in closer situations, lamenting that they have not had to claw back from a deficit this year.

“Those are tougher games,” Bell said. “I kind of regret we haven’t had those kind of games.”

However, with wins against Chugiak, Service and Dimond under their belt, the Mariners have also proven that they can compete even against large-schools competition.

Homer and Sitka have not played each other this season, so Homer will have to adapt quickly to any curveballs the Wolves throw at them, which may be a lot. Earlier this season, Sitka made its way to the title game of the East/West Invite tournament in early May, losing to perennial large-schools powerhouse East Anchorage in the final.

Bell said he is aware of at least one player the Mariners will have to watch out for — Sitka shortstop Sidney Riggs, who has followed up her leading performance in Sitka’s first-ever Class 3A state basketball championship in March by helping the Wolves to the precipice of another state softball crown.

“She’s a speedy little thing, one of the players we’re going to wanna keep an eye on,” Bell said. “We can’t relax at all.”

A solid and consistent force in the pitching circle has helped Homer to the postseason in 2015. Senior McKi Needham, who has compiled an 8-2 record on the mound this year, leads the Mariners with 50 2-3 innings pitched, an ERA of 3.31 and 44 strikeouts. Pam Jantzi has settled in as a dependable reliever, compiling a 3-1 record with 23 1-3 innings pitched and an ERA of 5.40.

“They’re an impressive core that work well together, and they really help stabilize the center of the diamond,” coach Bell said. “We’re not going to be a big strikeout team, but I can count on our defense to get us out of innings.”

When not on the mound, Needham fills in well at first base, while Jantzi completes a solid outfield with Kayla Stafford and Maryhanna Bowe. Larson Fellows, Isabel Beach, Riley Walls and Kyla Pitzman have staked down their infield spots at first, second, short and third base, respectively.

At the plate, Homer’s stats read like a pro in the minors. Needham is batting .593 with 10 doubles, two home runs and 33 RBI, Maggie LaRue is at .600 with 17 RBI, Pitzman is at .591 with 25 RBI and four homers, and Fellows is at .533 with 20 RBI.

Those numbers have helped five Homer players to be named to the All-Conference team in 2015; Jantzi, Fellows, Needham, LaRue and Pitzman. In addition, LaRue was unanimously named the Player of the Year.

“She’s gonna be excited,” Bell said. “It makes me feel good as a coach.”

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