The Soldotna softball team nabbed fourth place at the small-schools state softball tournament in Fairbanks for the program’s best finish since 2011.
The Stars also have a third-place finish in 2010 and another fourth place in 2008.
“For us to come in and place where we did — a lot of people didn’t even have us coming up here,” Soldotna coach Kelli Knoebel said after her squad finished 8-9 overall. “We came up with our best team game and played solid offense and defense.”
Soldotna’s run at the tournament ended with a 15-3 loss in six innings to North Pole on Saturday.
North Pole would go on to take third, while Thunder Mountain was first and Juneau-Douglas was second. Southeast schools have now won every small-schools state title since 2009.
Saturday, Knoebel said her squad ran into a bit of fatigue — playing a third game in two days — and a Patriots team with some solid bats.
In the sixth inning, starting pitcher Emily Jackson had to leave the game due to fatigue and an aching hip. Danielle Hills, who made the all-tournament team, came on and the Patriots were able to break the game open.
Carlin Meyer was 2 for 3 for the Stars, and Knoebel added that she had a great game behind the plate.
Also for SoHi, Hills was 2 for 2 with a double and RBI, Delaney Crosby-Schneider was 2 for 3 with two RBIs and Kaytlynn Malone singled in her lone plate appearance.
Knoebel also was happy she was able to get senior Abby Anderson, a first-year player, an at-bat at state.
Knoebel said the Stars lose 10 seniors, including the manager, and they will be missed.
“We have six people coming back next year hungry for a taste of the state tournament,” the coach said. “With some good work in the offseason, we’ll try and rebuild and get back to the state tournament.”
Friday, Knoebel kept clicking off firsts.
The Stars were making their first state appearance under Knoebel and also the first appearance for the program since 2012.
After losing their first game to Thunder Mountain 11-1 in six innings, the Stars came back in the afternoon to stave off elimination by topping Northern Lights Conference rival Homer 9-7.
The victory was Knoebel’s first at state and the fourth-year head coach’s first triumph over Homer.
“It was a pretty huge win for us,” Knoebel said. “They’re a big conference rival and it’s nice to finally win a big battle with them.”
The victory meant SoHi could finish no worse than fourth at state and set up the Saturday morning showdown with North Pole.
Homer jumped out to a 3-1 lead after the first inning, but the decisive frame would be the bottom of the third, when SoHi scored seven times for an 8-3 lead.
“We started off ahead 3-0, but they came back strong,” said Homer coach Bill Bell, who had a string of five straight top-three finishes at state snapped. “They were hitting. They outplayed us.”
The Mariners (10-10) cut the lead to 8-6 after five, but Soldotna went up 9-6 after six. Homer then could muster just one run in the seventh.
“We kept chipping away,” Bell said. “I thought we were going to get them at the end.
“They were chasing down some long fly balls. The kind where you think, ‘That’s gonna drop,’ but the center fielder comes from nowhere to catch the ball.”
Those catches helped make SoHi center fielder Macylea Elsey the Player of the Game for SoHi. Elsey also had a three-run inside-the-park homer.
Knoebel also said catcher Meyer had a great game on defense.
“Error-free defense is going to fire up a team and a pitcher when you’re trying to come back from a tough loss,” Knoebel said.
Jackson pitched all seven innings for SoHi, giving up 13 hits, seven runs and walking two.
The Stars banged out 14 hits, with Crosby-Schneider going 3 for 3 with three RBIs, Amber McDonald going 2 for 4 with an RBI, Hills going 2 for 4, Meghan Ussing going 2 for 3, Ember Lohrke going 2 for 4 with two RBIs, and Jazi Larrow going 1 for 3.
Homer had swept two games from SoHi in the regular season, though the Stars technically won one due to forfeit.
“Kelli and her crew put together a nice team,” Bell said. “They were much stronger than they were at the beginning of the season. She’s done well with them.”
Knoebel gave credit to her players and to SoHi’s fans, which traveled all the way to Fairbanks to support the team.
“We’re playing the best we have all year, and that’s the bench, all 13 players on the roster,” Knoebel said. “To see the practice and dedication to Soldotna softball has been a pleasure.”
For Homer, McKi Needham — an all-tournament honoree — was 3 for 4 with two runs, while Riley Walls was 2 for 4 with two runs, Elsie Smith was 2 for 4, Kelly Liebers was 2 for 2 and Izabelle Hagge was 2 for 3.
Needham gave up nine runs — four earned — for the Mariners in six innings. She gave up 14 hits, walked two and struck out three.
Needham, along with Kyah Doughty, Liebers, Walls and Patricia Woo, have graduated.
“We’ve got some good young players, but we’re going to be in a building mode more than we have been in quite a few years,” Bell said. “I have high hopes.”
In the first game against Thunder Mountain, Knoebel said her team came out flat.
Hills was the Player of the Game after getting SoHi’s lone hit — a double which allowed her to later score SoHi’s lone run. Hills also pitched a scoreless inning.
Jackson pitched the first six innings and gave up all 11 runs, while McDonald and Elsey were given sportsmanship awards in the game.
Homer opened the day with a 9-1 loss to Juneau-Douglas.
Mary Hana Bowe was 3 for 3, while Walls was 2 for 3. Needham pitched four innings, giving up nine runs — five earned — on eight hits.
Hagge pitched a scoreless and hitless inning.
Bell said he has talked to other coaches and will be submitting a proposal to the Alaska School Activities Association to space the games out at the tournament more.
The games Friday were just 2 1/2 hours apart, but the first game was at noon. Bell said that by moving the first game to, for example, 10 a.m., players could grab an extra hour of rest between games.