NLC all set for first softball tournament

If this were past years, the Homer and Soldotna softball teams would be kicking back this holiday weekend and celebrating trips to the state softball tournament, which will be June 1 to 3 in Fairbanks.

Instead, today and Saturday, the Mariners and the Stars will be battling for state berths at the Northern Lights Conference tournament in Homer.

And both are extremely happy about it.

“I don’t mind at all,” said Homer coach Bill Bell, whose program will be looking for a 16th state berth in 17 years. “One of the goals we have is improving softball on the peninsula, and a tournament that generates interest is a great way of doing that.”

Soldotna coach Kelli Knoebel, looking for a second straight state berth, agreed.

“I think it’s nice because everybody has gotten games and everybody is more experienced,” Knoebel said. “That makes you focus because everybody has a shot.”

Before the double-elimination tournament was created, the conference’s two berths to state were decided by NLC records in the regular season.

The problem came when a squad would get on the field for the first time in April, lose a handful of conference games before May, and have virtually nothing left to play for.

“Other teams for years felt like they were eliminated halfway through the season,” Bell said. “Now everybody has a chance again.”

Kenai coach John Manley, whose team went 3-5 to take the No. 4 seed, is happy to have that chance.

“We just have to be on the ball,” Manley said. “We can’t have lapses. Everything has to be clicking right, but we can do it.

“Those teams are good. We have to have the ball bounce our way.”

Coaches also like the idea of being tournament-tested heading into state.

“We’ve made a few adjustments the past few days and hopefully we can take a few steps forward and go down and play good ball,” Knoebel said. “That can get us ready for state because it has such a competitive nature to it.”

Kenai, which was 3-5 in league, plays the first game of the tournament today at 10 a.m. against No. 5 seed Houston, which was 0-8 in league.

Manley said the Kardinals can’t take anything for granted, particularly with the health of pitcher Cierra King in question.

King hurt her leg in the final week of the regular season and Manley isn’t sure what she will offer in the tournament. Savannah Jones and Kassie Lindsley also can pitch for Kenai.

“We’ve had moments where we’ve done well and moments where we’ve disappeared,” Manley said. “Hopefully, all the work we’ve done will translate to the field.”

Soldotna, the No. 2 seed at 6-2, opens with No. 3 Kodiak, 3-5 in league, at 12:30 p.m.

Knoebel has 10 seniors, or rather recent graduates, on her team and said all have embodied the four D’s of dedication, desire, determination and discipline.

“This graduating class has really bought in,” Knoebel said. “I’m looking forward to the region tournament, but I’m already proud of what they’ve done academically, because student comes before athlete.”

After battling a blister on her finger early in the final week of the regular season, Knoebel said recent graduate Danielle Hills is ready to go.

“Every player is going to be important,” Knoebel said. “Danielle will be pitching on the mound and everybody has to get behind her.”

Bell said he has four pitchers available, but none have particularly high strikeout rates. But he has confidence in his defense to back the pitchers up.

Mary Hana Bowe then leads the offense.

“I think we’re really looking at a team effort,” Bell said. “Mary Hana is the franchise player this year, but I’m really pleased with how everybody is pulling together.”

Northern Lights Conference softball tournament

at Homer

Friday’s games

Game 1 — Kenai vs. Houston, 10 a.m.

Game 2 — Soldotna vs. Kodiak, 12:30 p.m.

Game 3 — Homer vs. Game 1 winner, 3 p.m.

Game 4 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 5:30 p.m.

Saturday’s games

Game 5 — Game 4 winner vs. Game 3 loser, 10 a.m.

Game 6 — Game 2 winner vs. Game 3 winner, 12:30 p.m.

Game 7 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 3 p.m.

Game 8 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner, 5:30 p.m.

If-necessary game if Game 6 winner loses Game 8, 7:30 p.m.

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