Now in its third edition, the Northern Lights Conference tournament was created to increase the level of competition in the conference and sharpen the two teams that qualify for state.
Homer won the first two tournaments, but this season the Mariners (6-2 in league) are the No. 2 seed behind No. 1 Kodiak, which went 8-0 in conference play.
Mariners coach Bill Bell, whose team has been to state in 18 of the past 19 seasons, said competition is tightening up in the conference. The tournament will be today and Saturday at Steve Shearer Memorial Ball Park in Kenai.
“I think you’re going to be seeing some surprises,” said Bell, whose team finished 6-2 in the league.
For instance, on May 9 No. 4 seed Houston was able to take a 7-1 lead into the fourth inning against Homer before losing 17-11.
“I think it gives a lot of life to the entire season,” Soldotna coach Kelli Knoebel said of deciding state berths at the tourney and not by regular season records. “I remember a couple of years ago you knew in the first weekend of May who was going to state.
“I’ve seen everyone in the league get better. That’s a testament to the coaching and the time the kids put in.”
Homer will open the double elimination tournament today with a 12:30 p.m. game against Soldotna (4-4 in league). Homer defeated Soldotna 12-2 on May 7 and 13-4 on April 30.
Bell just returned from eight days in Sitka for his daughter’s wedding, but he said assistant Hannah Zook did a great job in picking up 16-0 and 19-0 victories over Kenai.
“Any time you play Soldotna, it’s always a game that could go either way,” Bell said. “They’re a good, solid team.”
Bell said the top of his order — Grace Godfrey, Annalynn Brown, Brianna Hetrick, Kaitlyn Johnson and Haylee Owen — will be pivotal in the tournament.
The coach said freshmen Zoe Adkins and Kaylin Anderson have been great all year, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to the pressure of the tournament. Brown also has been great on the mound.
“She’s pretty consistent,” Bill said of Brown. “She just stays in her moment and doesn’t get freaked out at anything going on around her. That’s been one of her biggest strengths all along.”
Knoebel, whose team is looking to return to state after missing out last season, said victory against Homer will never be easy. Bell is too good of a coach and the players are too solid.
“You know Homer can throw a punch,” Knoebel said. “Can you throw a punch back? I’m looking forward to a good battle.
“Hopefully, we can slow them down and be a little more aggressive on the offensive side. “
Speaking Wednesday night, Knoebel had just watched six of her players graduate, so she also has other goals for the tournament.
“What you do as a coach is wins and losses, but what you see at graduation tonight is that they have a ton of character,” Knoebel said. “We want to be good teammates, good sportsmen and represent ourselves with fight. We then hope to get a softball victory on the side.”
Kenai and Houston will start the tournament with a 10 a.m. game. Both teams were 1-7 in the league this season, with Houston taking the No. 4 seed based on a coin toss. The squads split a doubleheader in Kenai on May 3, with the Kards taking the opener 17-16 and falling 21-3 in the nightcap.
Kenai coach John Manley said the Kards had trouble in that 21-3 loss due to injuries, something that has been a theme late in the season.
“I feel like we’ve been getting better as the season goes along,” Manley said. “We’ve had some bad luck with injuries and people being sick, but hopefully everybody is back for the tournament.”
Important defensive players Zaharah Wilshusen and Kylin Lakshas are two Manley is hoping are back to full strength.
“I told my team everyone has played good at times this year, we just need to play good all of the time and not just part of the time,” Manley said. “We have to hit better. We can’t just hit in spurts.”
The coach said pitchers Lexi Reis and Kaylee Lauritsen have improved throughout the season and should be ready for the tournament.
“It’s sure going to be a lot easier than traveling and going to Kodiak last year,” Manley said.
Northern Lights Conference softball tournament
at Steve Shearer Memorial Ball Park, Kenai
Game 1 — Houston vs. Kenai Central, 10 a.m.
Game 2 — Homer vs. Soldotna, 12:30 p.m.
Game 3 — Game 1 winner vs. Kodiak, 3 p.m.
Game 4 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 5:30 p.m.
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.
Championship — Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner, 5:30 p.m.
If necessary — In the event of a Game 6 winner loss, 7:30 p.m.