Northern Lights Conference teams welcome new region tournament

2016 was a great year for Soldotna softball coach Kelli Knoebel, both professionally and personally. In the spring, the fourth-year head coach of the Stars saw her squad make it to the small-schools state tournament for the first time in her tenure with the school, and in the fall, she saw her beloved Chicago Cubs win their first World Series crown in 108 years.

This spring, Knoebel would like to see SoHi take another step further and break their own championship drought, which owns a number unique to itself. The Stars have never won a state crown in their history.

“The Cubs capped (2016) off, let’s be serious,” Knoebel quipped in a phone interview Thursday. “In terms of our own season … it was just fun for that group of kids. They had that desire to have that taste in their mouth, and we’re trying to work hard to get back there.”

Knoebel and the Stars are just one of five teams — including fellow peninsula teams Kenai Central and Homer — that are aiming for a Northern Lights Conference championship this year, and they will have to stand up against a new challenge.

The Alaska Schools Activities Association revamped the NLC with the addition of a tournament, adding another hurdle to overcome for local teams. In previous years, teams battled for state spots through their regular-season records, with the champion and runner-up teams grabbing automatic bids.

This year, the NLC tournament will settle the two state spots in Homer from May 25 to 27. The tournament will send two teams to the season-ending state tournament in Anchorage from June 1 to 3. The new format change has been getting rave reviews.

“It will make the season a lot better,” said Homer head coach Bill Bell. “Usually teams would play two games and realize they’re out of running of state chances. This rewards teams that develop as they go along.”

Bell, a longtime softball coach in Homer with a small-schools state championship to his credit, explained that instead of watching their postseason hopes diminish halfway through the season, teams can now use the regular season to hone their craft and sharpen their skills in preparation for the region tourney, where they can hope to pull off a few wins.

Kenai Central, a program that finished with two wins last year, may be the biggest beneficiary of all. First-year head coach John Manley echoed Bell’s thoughts about getting the JV players more time on the big team.

“It takes a little pressure off of you in league games,” Manley said. “Now you can let some of these younger (players) get some experience.”

Last year, SoHi and Homer both finished 5-1 in the NLC to claim the title as co-champions. Homer technically won a tiebreaker based on head-to-head record.

Knoebel said the NLC tournament will add a proper exclamation point on the end of the year.

“It’s a nice way to encapsulate the season,” she said.

So what sort of faces will peninsula teams feature this year? The following is a closer look:

HOMER MARINERS

Last year’s Homer softball team finished .500, including a pair of state losses. The Mariners ended their season with an elimination contest to Soldotna.

The Mariners officially open their 2017 campaign Tuesday in Homer, but Bell has already given his players lessons that will help strengthen a team that lost several key seniors. A JV tournament a week ago in Kodiak saw Homer make it to the championship game, where they lost by a late run to Eagle River.

Before that, Bell brought up National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Famer Cindy Bristow, who helped the Mariners in a coaching exhibition. Bell said he hopes that added help will go a long way for a squad that is slightly down on numbers. Plus, he’s banking on the excitement of the NLC tournament being held on home soil.

“Right now we’re just focused on mechanics and the basics,” Bell said. “We haven’t gotten into real depth, that second and third level of playing softball.”

After losing six seniors to graduation, including first baseman Isabel Beach, state all-tournament pitcher McKi Needham, shortstop Riley Walls and catcher Kyah Doughty, Homer is a work in progress, according to Bell.

“We lost a very talented senior class, but we have four seniors this year that bring experience,” he said. “The rest is spotty, some are new and still learning the game.”

Senior shortstop Mary Hana Bowe headlines that list of returners. Bowe led the Mariners from the plate in the 2016 regular season with a .580 batting average, and was recently named to the all-West Coast team for the NFCA.

The Mariners also return first baseman Elsie Smith, second baseman Malina Fellows and pitcher Annali Metz, all seniors.

Bell said his pitching rotation this spring will be heavy on Metz and freshmen Annalyn Brown, Rebecca Chapman and Briana Hetrick. Bell said the pitching staff has been working hard on off-speed and location pitches.

Freshman Rylee Doughty will likely be a catcher for most games, and Hetrick will back her up.

SOLDOTNA STARS

After going 8-9 overall last spring, Kelli Knoebel’s fourth year as coach netted her first state appearance with the Stars.

This year, Knoebel said SoHi needs to get through the stacked region tournament before the Stars can focus on state.

“Our expectations are to get to the region tournament and see what we can do,” she said.

Last year’s fourth-place finish at state was the best for SoHi in five years, but the Stars lost senior infielders Amber McDonald, Delaney Crosby-Schneider and Olivia Farrell, as well as outfielders Meghan Ussing and Macylea Elsey.

With a cast of fresh faces staring at her, Knoebel has employed what she calls the “Four D’s” — Discipline, determination, dedication and desire.

“It’s (about) taking talent coming in and seeing what we can do with it,” she added.

Knoebel said of the 12 new players to the team, nine have either never played softball or have very limited experience. Plus, junior pitcher Ashley Jackson is out for an undetermined amount of time with a hip injury. Jackson tossed a no-hitter against Kodiak last spring.

This year’s crop of seniors include outfielders Alicia McClelland and Jazi Larrow, third baseman Ember Lohrke and senior pitcher Danielle Hills.

Other significant returning starters include junior Carlin Meyer at catcher, junior Tara Lynn Frates at first base, utility players Darcy Blume (who transferred from Kenai), freshman Ashley McDonald, and the sister duo of Taylor and Casey Earll. Taylor is a senior and Casey a freshman.

Knoebel said Bailey Smith could bring hitting as a designated hitter.

Soldotna’s conference schedule begins Tuesday at Homer.

KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS

John Manley has been an assistant coach at Kenai for two years, and now enters his first season as head coach of the Kardinals. Manley’s 40 years living in Kenai have seen him play on the Kenai Peninsula Softball league around town, before entering a coaching position with the Skyview High School team in 2010, the inaugural year for the program.

Manley is in charge of a Kardinals program that won two games last year, and is working hard to help the squad move up the rankings.

“It’s going as good as expected so far,” he said. “Of course we would like to be able to go to state, but our main focus is making them better and improving every day.”

Manley said there are already a couple of injuries in the early weeks of the season, including senior catcher Emily Koziczkowski. There is currently no timetable on Koziczkowski’s return.

The returning starters include a formidable pitching rotation of Cierra King and Savannah Jones, junior catcher Alyssa Stanton — who will be moved to the outfield should Koziczkowski come back — and senior shortstop Patricia Catacutan.

“Everything about her is quick,” Manley said about Catacutan.

Senior Kassie Lindsley, who is back on the team after a year away, will add a third arm to the pitching core. All three throwers will also likely get time in the outfield when they are not in the pitching circle.

Another player returning after a year off is junior catcher Randee Johnson. The rest of the infield will be decided by sophomore Kiera Duby and Jenna Helminski. The outfield could see a number of newer players, such as Courtney Brown, Treava Schmitter-Schrier, Brooklyn Nimcheski, Fiona Heath and Mavra Oskolkoff.

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