It wasn’t until nearly half past 10 p.m. on a cold, wet Saturday night last spring that Homer emerged as the 2017 Northern Lights Conference softball champions.
Of course, the fans that came out to watch down in Homer weren’t exactly enjoying the bite of the late spring rush, but the players and coaches involved could not have been happier with the added competition.
“The beauty of that conference tournament is you can start slow and grow and get better as you get reps,” applauded Soldotna head coach Kelli Knoebel. “You get to grow and get to learn.”
“I would think all the conferences would do it this way,” added Kenai Central head coach John Manley.
Last year’s NLC tournament was the inaugural showcase after years of the conference deciding two state teams based on regular season records. Homer edged SoHi in a two-game marathon effort that ended late on a Saturday night, escaping with a 17-16 win in the first game, then taking the “if-necessary” contest 12-4 to claim the NLC crown for another year.
The tournament is back for another year, and with it the rush of a winner-take-all atmosphere.
“I’m really happy we’re doing a tournament again,” said Homer coach Bill Bell. “I think it’s just really fair for everybody.”
The praise draws from the idea that a team that may start slow can still have a chance to qualify to the state tournament with a complete effort and squad, instead of falling out of state contention before the regular season ends and inhibiting competitive desire.
The five-team conference — Kenai, SoHi, Homer, Houston and Kodiak — will fight for the two state spots in Kodiak this year.
Soldotna and Homer are looking for a repeat performance of their epic Northern Lights Conference championship clash while Kenai is simply looking for a first state berth in program history.
Like previous years, the state is split into two divisions, which have been renamed Division I and II. SoHi, Kenai and Homer all fit into the Northern Lights Conference in Division II.
Unfortunately, the road to a state title still runs through powerhouse Southeast schools Sitka, Juneau and Thunder Mountain, as well as Hutchison from the Mid-Alaska Conference.
“They just have a culture down there, softball is the sport they want to play,” Bell explained. “For a while, they didn’t have soccer teams, so they would recruit strong athletes to play softball.”
With a region run in the hopes of all three peninsula teams, the 2018 season beckons. The following is a closer look at each school:
In his 14th year as Homer head coach, Bell has guided the Mariners to state in all but one year, and the Homer program is on a current run of 17 state appearances in 18 years, including a state title in 2006.
So Bell has an eye for talent and figuring out the competitive level of play before games are played, and said this year’s squad has the potential to do it again.
“I’m a little bit concerned because we have freshmen who haven’t played higher level ball yet, so you don’t know how they’ll react to the pressure,” Bell said. “But we have some good players back from last year.”
Bell said he was pleased how Homer played at a recent preseason tournament in Kodiak, which gave him a slim idea of what to expect from NLC foes this year.
“I was impressed with Kodiak, they have a strong pitcher and catcher,” he said. “We had a good back-and-forth game with them.
“And Soldotna always comes on strong, we seem to play them well in conference games, and two years in a row they’ve taken it to us at state.”
Bell noted that among the 23 or so on the roster, close to half are freshmen. Gone to graduation is Malina Fellows, Mary Hana Bowe, Elsie Smith and Annali Metz, four talented members that made up a strong core of players the previous few years, but Bell knows they were once young too.
“That just gives a lot of the younger kids a chance to step up,” he said about their absence.
Bell said his pitching staff will be led by sophomores Annalynn Brown and Rebecca Chapman. Brown pitched a lot of varsity innings last year, and in seven league contests fashioned a 3.62 ERA.
Bell said Homer junior Briana Hetrick will be catching for the Mariners while sophomore Kaitlyn Johnson will man shortstop and freshman Grace Godfrey will be in center field. The Kodiak tourney also showed that the hitting is still there, as Godfrey knocked out a grand slam against Kodiak.
Bell said the rest of the infield and outfield is yet to be determined with a jumble of freshmen and sophomores to sort out, but the early games have seen Haylee Owen, Aspen Wall and Hannah Hatfield patrol the bags.
Manley returns for his second year coaching the Kardinals, and is looking for a better campaign from 2017.
“I think we’ll be OK,” he said. “I have so many new players on the team, and we’ve just gotten outside this week.”
Kenai opened its 2017 NLC tournament with a wild 32-20 win over Houston, but lost in the quarterfinals to Homer before being ousted completely in the second-chance bracket by Kodiak.
With Kenai’s first game Tuesday against Homer, Manley said he is eager to see how Kenai responds in its first big test of the year.
“I think we have a little more depth this year,” he noted. “The girls have been progressing well each week. I hope they keep it going all year.”
Among the top returning starters is the senior battery of Alyssa Stanton and Savannah Jones. Stanton catches and also patrols the outfield, while Jones is an experienced arm that has gotten Kenai out of several jams in the past.
When Stanton isn’t catching, Manley said senior Laura Archuleta will be behind the plate. Archuleta is also a viable second baseman, as is junior Leinani Rapoza and freshman Zaharah Wilshusen. First base will likely see either freshman Lexi Reis or sophomore Tamara Frates.
Joining the team this year and taking over shortstop is senior Lexy Carrasco, while third base will see junior Kiera Duby back on the hot corner.
The outfield will likely see junior Nereid Phillips and freshman Michal Keys catching popups.
Knoebel has coached the Stars to the state tournament each of the past two seasons, but an offload of talented seniors over the offseason has left SoHi scrambling to start 2018.
With a chunk of good seniors — namely infielders Jazi Larrow, Ember Lohrke, Leah McCabe, Taylor Earll and Alicia McClelland and pitcher Danielle Hills — gone from the roster, the Stars are now sitting at 18 players, including last year’s junior class, which Knoebel hopes to see take over for the 2017 senior crew.
“We’ve got a lot of new kids, but we still have good experience back from last year with six or seven girls back,” Knoebel said. “We have new kids that have that understanding of the basics of fielding and hitting, and they know what their place on this team is going to be.
“We’re buying into the program, and they know what we stand for.”
Knoebel stresses the “Four D’s” of SoHi softball — dedication, determination, discipline and desire — a mantra that she believes can take the Stars back to the state tournament.
“For me as a coach, it’s exciting to see that new talent,” she said. “We’re growing and embracing the process.”
The Stars open their season with a home contest against Kodiak next Friday.
Only two seniors are in the fold this year — pitcher and first baseman Tara Lynn Frates and pitcher Emily Jackson, who is currently recovering from injury. Also returning is sophomore catcher Casey Earll and sophomore pitcher/shortstop Ashley McDonald.
Joining the mix is junior infielder Bailey Berger and sophomores Bailey Smith and Kaya Ahlers, both of whom missed time last year with injury.