Last year’s inaugural Northern Lights Conference softball tournament provided fans with an electrifying marathon comeback for the champion Homer Mariners, who had to beat Soldotna twice in a row on a wild Saturday night to claim the title.
Fans are hoping for more of the same this weekend in Kodiak, while coaches could use a little less drama.
The double-elimination NLC tournament runs today and Friday at Baranoff Park on Kodiak Island, and two teams — both title-game contenders — out of the five will secure state tournament bids for the following weekend in Fairbanks.
Homer gets its tournament defense started today at 3 p.m. As the top seed in the field, the Mariners will face the winner of a play-in game between Kenai and Houston, and while the road to the title game and state may look easy, it’s anything but.
“I think there’s certainly a lot of parity there,” said Homer head coach Bill Bell. “I even think some of the run-rule games could’ve gone different (in 2018).
“If everyone plays well, it could come down to anyone.”
The NLC championship game is slated for 5:30 p.m. Friday evening, with an “if-necessary” contest to be potentially played soon after the conclusion of the first. That game will be played only if the team that comes through the loser-out bracket should win the “title” game.
Bell’s Homer program has qualified to state a remarkable 16 of the past 17 years, and he plans to do it again, but he also cautioned to watch out for Soldotna, the No. 2 seed, and Kenai, the No. 4 seed, which he believes is a dark horse team for the tournament.
“(Kenai head coach John Manley) has taken them a long way this year, and they have some depth in their hitters,” Bell said.
Still, Bell believes the region crown still runs through two teams.
“It’ll probably come down to Kodiak and us,” he said.
Manley echoed Bell’s thoughts that all five conference teams are closer in competition than last year.
“I think anything can happen and if our girls play solid innings, they can keep up with those teams,” he said. “I feel like we can beat any of those teams. I’m not saying we’re better, but we can beat them. We lost some close games, and all it takes is just a little break here and there and we could’ve won those games.”
Soldotna head coach Kelli Knoebel is trying to get her team to state for a third straight year, and with her tested “Four D’s” of dedication, determination, discipline and desire, believes the squad has the potential to take the title.
“Let’s believe in us. Why not us?” Knoebel said. “For us, it’s about controlling what we can control.”
Something teams can’t control is the weather. The town of Kodiak is forecasted to see an 80 percent chance of rain today and Friday with high temps in the mid-40’s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast.
While the miserable weather isn’t something new to peninsula teams this year, it still has the makings of a sloppy game that could easily turn a favorite on its head.
“It looks like a lot of rain going on,” said Knoebel. “I think weather is just something you can’t control, it’s just mentally preparing for that and understanding that you’ve got to bring your Xtratufs and deal with it.”
No matter who wins the Kenai-Houston game, the Mariners have an ideal path to making the final. Homer’s season results against both teams paint a rosy picture for the Mariners, who defeated Kenai twice with scores of 23-15 and 9-2, and beat Houston twice, 20-7 and 26-7.
Annalynn Brown (5-0) leads the team in the pitching circle with a 5.30 ERA, and has shouldered the work load with 64 2/3 innings of work, more than two-thirds of the team innings of pitching.
“Annalynn’s definitely going to be our go-to pitcher,” Bell said. “She’s been pretty steady, doesn’t have a lot of movement on her pitches but she’s good with location. She’s good at figuring out hitters for the first time.”
Bell tabbed Becca Chapman and Briana Hetrick as backup pitchers this weekend.
Hetrick and teammate Grace Godfrey have led the Homer offense this year. Hetrick leads the team in hits and is averaging .442 while slugging .731, and Godfrey leads the team in slugging at .863, with six triples and 25 RBIs. Bell said Haylee Owen is another run producer that has improved a lot this year, and can run the bases well.
The Mariners as a team are averaging .368 and are slugging .529, while maintaining an on-base percentage of .542.
On defense, Bell said he likes his infield’s progress this year, a group composed of Owend at first, freshman Hannah Hatfield at second, Ksenia Kuzmin at third and Kaitlyn Johnson at shortstop.
“We’ve been cutting down on walks from last year and relying on defense to make plays,” he said. “They’re pretty solid right now. Much better than the beginning of the year.”
Kenai (4) vs. Houston (5), 10 a.m. Thursday
Kenai’s path to state will require at least three region tourney victories, starting today against Houston. The Kardinals defeated the Hawks twice in the regular season with scores of 18-4 and 17-9, which gives Kenai a chance to get off to a good start.
“We’re hoping to win, but we’re not going to take them lightly,” Manley said. “A lot of the young players have done well. Our offense started slow but has done better, and hopefully we can continue that into the tournament.”
While the game experience of Kenai’s battery of Savannah Jones and Alyssa Stanton has been a big help for the Kards this year, Manley said the rest of the cast has made strides over the past few weeks, particularly those players who had never played the sport before.
“I think if we just rely on (Jones and Stanton), we’re not going to do very well,” Manley said. “We need to rely on the team.”
Jones has taken on the lions share of innings pitched this year, and has often provided a boost behind the plate for Kenai. Stanton has started most of Kenai’s season at the leadoff spot in the lineup.
Manley said the Kards will need to rely on Kaylee Lauritsen as a backup pitcher, Leilani Rapoza as a big hitter, and Lexy Carrasco at shortstop to maintain a swift tourney run.
Soldotna (2) vs. Kodiak (3), 12:30 p.m. Thursday
The Stars return a very different lineup than the one that faced down Homer in last year’s NLC championship showdown, but the current crew is one capable of a return trip to state, according to Knoebel.
“We’ve all gotten better, but we haven’t seen Kodiak since the first week,” Knoebel said. “It’s just going to be a matter of execution.”
The Stars split with the Bears in the season with a 13-6 win and a 16-9 loss on consecutive days in late April, but as Knoebel explained, that was a long time ago in softball terms.
“For us, it was about that first game and a lot of potential for us to make adjustments,” Knoebel said. “We’re continuing to be disciplined at the plate, and just because (the pitcher) has a good arm, doesn’t mean we change our outlook at the plate.”
For SoHi, it will take two wins to get to state, one today and one in Friday’s semifinals. Knoebel said Kodiak should be a challenge, and Homer will only be tougher.
“You can’t get one (win) until you step onto the field and take care of what you’ve got to do,” she said.
Among the players leading the blue charge is senior pitching ace Taralynn Frates, who capped the team’s regular season finale last weekend with a gritty win over Kenai. This coming in a year that Frates has had to step up and pitch her first varsity innings after fellow senior Emily Jackson was ruled out to injury.
“She’s the ultimate team player, and she’s stepped up and embraced her role on this team,” Knoebel said about Frates. “Her mindset has been in practice about fine tuning her mechanics.”
Knoebel added that a strong sophomore class has provided huge defensive plays behind Frates this year, as catcher Casey Earll, shortstop Ashley McDonald and third baseman Bailey Berger have been the difference in many games. Plus, a move to centerfield for Casey Card has kept rival teams off the board time and again.
“You can just see what athletic ability gives you,” Knoebel said. “In practice, we’re making plays, and everyone is like, ‘Wow nice catch’, and now it’s building that trust, we know the game a little more.”