Homer is fine with the status quo in the Northern Lights Conference, while Kenai Central and Soldotna are looking to shake things up a little.
The Mariners, under 12th-year coach Bill Bell, are the gold standard in the league, having made state appearances in 14 of the past 15 seasons.
With Kodiak and Homer having taken the two state slots out of the conference for three years straight, the Kardinals and Stars are ready for a change.
Soldotna went to state from 2010 to 2012, but Stars coach Kelli Knoebel is still looking for her first state berth as she enters her fourth season.
With 11 of her varsity players getting experience last season, Knoebel enters the season optimistic.
“This senior class has been with me my entire coaching career,” Knoebel said. “We’re hoping to make the games this year a little more competitive.
“Homer is definitely the cream of the crop, and Kodiak, unfortunately, has had our number the past three years.”
The Kenai program enters its seventh year and Mark King has been the coach the entire time but has not been to state.
Like Knoebel, he said his team gained valuable experience last season, losing just two starters to graduation.
“The girls have been playing well together, practicing well together and clicking really well,” King said. “Last year, there were issues with awareness on the field, but this year they’re looking sharper in practice.”
The flip side of Homer’s 14 trips to state is that they have resulted in just one state title, coming in 2006.
A huge reason for that is the dominant brand of softball played in Southeast Alaska, which has produced 9 of 11 state champs since the small-schools division was created in 2005.
Bell said he knows he can’t take a state berth for granted. He also has loaded up his squad’s schedule with Southeast and Anchorage schools in order to season the team for a possible state run.
“That’s really where the competition is, down in Southeast,” Bell said. “We’re headed down there for a weekend and we’ll see all four of the Southeast teams.”
The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula’s softball teams:
King saw numbers drop from 33 last season to 12 this season. King said the drop has pluses and minuses.
There won’t be a JV squad, which means a whole group of younger players can’t be groomed for the future.
“The girls we have will get the opportunity to get more reps in,” King said. “They’ll have more opportunity to get more one-on-one time.”
Kenai returns a bunch of players with quality experience, with junior Emily Koziczkowski at catcher, junior Cierra King at pitcher and first base, sophomore Darcy Blume at shortstop, senior Darian Saltenberger at third base, senior Annika Oren at utility player and junior Patricia Catacutan at second.
Coach King said Cierra King will benefit from her experience on the mound.
“She’s throwing as hard if not harder than last year,” coach King said. “Velocitywise she is throwing good, and her accuracy has come a long ways.”
King said sophomores Savannah Jones and Samantha Kompkoff will provide valuable depth on the mound.
Senior Ashley Segura and sophomore Alyssa Stanton are ready to contribute on varsity after playing JV last year, while freshman Katelyn Burdick and junior Jessica Segura are inexperienced but progressing.
Blume had the team’s best batting average as a freshman, and will lead what King hopes is an improved offense this season.
“Part of the issue last year was we started slow with the bats and at the middle or end of the season we started swinging hard and making contact,” King said. “This year, I just hope we come out swinging.”
King also said the experience has his squad looking sharper in the field.
Bell has 27 out for the program, back to a more normal number after just 19 went out last season.
Homer lost a fair amount of firepower after last season, with senior pitcher and shortstop McKi Needham the only returning all-conference player.
“McKi is not going to be a dominating pitcher that strikes out 14 a game, but she will be a pitcher that keeps hitters off-balance, gets four or five strikeouts a game and keeps the ball in the infield,” Bell said.
Other key returners for the Mariners are senior Riley Walls at shortstop, senior Kyah Doughty at catcher, senior Isabel Beach at second base, senior Kelly Liebers at third base and senior Patricia Woo at first base and outfield.
The outfield will be made up of juniors MaryHana Bowe, Izabelle Hagge and Annali Metz.
Bell said there are promising sophomores and freshmen in the program, but they will play junior varsity this season.
“Our defense should be pretty good, and our hitting could always improve, in the coach’s eyes,” Bell said.
Knoebel has 22 in the program, a number typical for the Stars.
“We’ve been able to spend a lot of time in the offseason strengthening and conditioning,” Knoebel said. “Now it’s about figuring out the best mix for the team to create a team culture.”
Sophomore Emily Jackson, senior Delaney Crosby-Schneider and junior Danielle Hills — the only newcomer on the varsity — will handle the pitching duties.
“I’m blessed to have three people that are able to pitch,” Knoebel said “I think I’m in a good spot where I can work the matchups and be able to use pitchers based on how the game is being played.”
Senior shortstop Amber McDonald was a first-team all-conference performer last season, while junior Ember Lohrke made the second team at third base.
More experience comes from senior center fielder Macylea Elsey, senior right fielder Meghan Ussing, sophomore catcher Carlin Meyer, junior outfielders Jazi Larrow and Alicia McClelland, and senior utility players Jordan Martin and Olivia Farrell. Seniors Jayden Zimmer and Kaytlynn Malone provide even more depth for the squad.
Knoebel said the theme of the offseason has been stressing the basics, and she expects that to pay off all over the field, including at the plate.