The stakes have been raised for softball play in the Northern Lights Conference.
With Skyview closed and Houston not fielding a varsity team, the NLC is down to four squads.
With the conference earning two berths to the small-schools state tournament, the chance of making state is relatively large.
But the margin for error is very small. Each team has only six conference games, meaning a brief, mistimed hitting or pitching slump could cost a unit an early June trip to Fairbanks.
“It makes every game count, and that’s the thing we preach to kids is that it’s not just every game, but it’s every pitch, every at-bat, every inning, every out,” Soldotna coach Kelli Knoebel said. “We have to go out and play every game pitch by pitch.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to have.”
There must be something to that philosophy, because Homer coach Bill Bell, whose squad has made state 13 of the past 14 years, echoes the sentiment.
The Mariners have finished in the top three at state the past four years without adding to the school’s lone state title in 2006, but Bell said overcoming the Southeast hegemony at state is far from his mind.
“The only goal I set is that we control what we can control, and what we can control is throwing, catching and hitting well,” Bell said. “The rest will take care of itself.”
Homer and Kodiak have represented the conference at state the past two years, while Homer and Soldotna were the envoy from 2010 to 2012.
By combining forces with Skyview, Knoebel said she’d like to make her first state tournament in her third year as head coach.
She said the 27 players out is the most in her tenure.
“Instead of the two schools splitting up, we’ve formed one school, and one softball team at a bigger school,” Knoebel said. “Better competition in practice makes everyone better.”
The same could be said at Kenai Central, where coach Mark King has 33 players in the mix.
King has not made state in his first five years at the helm, but the softball boom in Kenai has him hopeful of changing that fact.
The coach said that about a decade ago, Little League softball in Kenai experienced a lull.
“The last few years, Little League softball is back up,” King said. “That’s where we got a lot of girls that came out last year, and this year we have girls that have played Little League softball the last couple of years.”
With so many important games on the schedule, the coaches are thankful that the light winter and new artificial fields have gotten them outside earlier.
“Granted, a couple of days have been cold, but to get to do softball stuff outside in the middle of March is something I’ve never seen,” Knoebel said.
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula’s softball teams:
Even with a group of solid returners and his tradition of success, Bell said it’s impossible to chase nerves as the season nears.
“I get butterflies,” he said. “Have I wasted two months? Have we covered everything we need to?”
Homer returns a solid battery in junior pitcher and shortstop McKi Needham and senior catcher Maggie LaRue. Both Needham and LaRue were first-team all-conference performers last season, while LaRue also was on the all-tournament team at state.
Other key returners for the Mariners are senior Larsen Fellows at first base, senior Kyla Pitzman at third base and junior Kayla Stafford in center field.
Homer also has second-team all-conference players Riley Wells, a junior outfielder and shortstop, and Pam Jantzi, a senior left fielder and pitcher, in the fold.
Bell said he only has 20 players out for the program this season, down from the norm of around 27.
The Mariners open their season by hosting Kenai Central on Tuesday at 6 p.m.
King faces the challenge of getting a young team up to speed quickly.
“Two-thirds of JV and varsity are sophomores and freshmen,” King said. “We have a lot of young players and most of them have one or maybe two years of experience.
“It’s a great thing to build a program off of.”
But King said with five seniors on the team, the Kards should be fine despite doing some experimenting with positions early in the season.
“There’s going to be some experiments going on, but I’m not too concerned about it,” King said. “From what I hear around the league, everybody is running into the same thing.”
Key returners for the Kards are senior second baseman Ashley Maxson, senior center fielder Alyssa Herr, junior outfielder and third baseman Darian Saltenberger and sophomore pitcher Cierra King.
Sophomore Emily Koziczkowski will do some catching, as well as infield play and pitching.
Stepping up to key roles will be senior outfielder Megan Kissee, sophomore shortstop Patricia Catacutan and sophomore pitcher Kassie Lindsley.
“My two starting pitchers, even though they’re sophomores, I’m confident they’ll do well this year,” King said. “In the coming years, they’ll be a good one-two punch.”
Rounding out the varsity roster for the Kards are freshman Darcy Blume, senior Erin Cox, junior Drew Peterson, junior Annika Oren, sophomore Baylee Roberts, senior Kinsley Trahan and sophomore Ellen Weaver.
King, whose team opens by hosting Palmer at noon Saturday, said his team’s hitting should be improved this season.
“If what they’ve been doing in the batting cages and practice is any indication,” he said. “Last year, I think it primarily was nerves. They’d kill the ball in practice and then they’d come into the game and couldn’t hit.”
Depth of talent is the theme in Soldotna last year.
Take pitcher, where 2014 graduate Serena Prior controlled the mound last season. Knoebel said she has a “laundry list” of pitchers this season.
“We have more depth at pitching this year, and we’re going to be able to use a rotation of pitchers,” Knoebel said.
Key returners for the Stars are senior first baseman Ila Cobb, junior pitcher and utility player Delaney Schneider, junior center fielder Macylea Elsey, junior second baseman Olivia Farrell and junior shortstop Jordan Martin. Junior catcher Meghan Ussing, from Skyview, also brings valuable experience.
Soldotna also imports tons of valuable experience from Skyview in seniors Payton Thomas, Emma Landeis, Hannah Mayo and Mikayla Miller.
“The leadership of all of my seniors has been paramount,” Knoebel said. “It’s important for the kids to create a Soldotna high school softball culture, under my leadership, that’s brought out in the way we play.”
Even more depth comes from sophomores Alyssa Corbin, Ember Lohrke, Alicia McLelland and Renee Hinz, and freshmen Carlin Meyer and Emily Jackson.
Amber McDonald, a junior all-conference shortstop, also will provide quite the boost when she returns from injury at midseason.
“We have a great, competitive team, we’ve had really good practices and we have more depth at positions than we have in the past,” Knoebel said. “We’ve been able to develop a sense of unity and team to play the game in a strong, smart, competitive way.”
The Stars open by hosting Palmer today at 6 p.m.