Looking to build upon three straight bronze medal finishes at the season-ending state tournament, the experienced Homer softball team needs to buck the trend.
Back in the state tourney for the first time since 2012, the Soldotna softball team is looking for a new era of success.
The two Kenai Peninsula teams, which ended the regular season as co-champions of the Northern Lights Conference (with Homer getting the tiebreaker), head into the state tournament in Fairbanks with high hopes, but each squad faced different paths to the promised land.
For the Soldotna Stars, a state berth presents a new experience for each player on the team, as well as head coach Kelli Knoebel. The Stars last made the trip to state in 2012, when Dave Cleveland finished off his coaching career with SoHi.
Knoebel took the reigns of the head coaching job in 2013 and in her fourth season has guided the Stars back to state.
“I do this for the kids,” Knoebel stressed after Wednesday’s final home practice. “It’s an honor, and it’s about the kids. They buy into what we do.”
SoHi finished the regular season second in the NLC standings at 5-1 and 6-7 overall.
Knoebel said the team finally realized that a state trip was on the horizon after a late-season win over Kenai Central left only a game against Homer on the schedule.
“When you get the experience of telling kids that they made it to state, and that, ‘Holy cow, we did it,’ feeling, that’s something you’ll never forget,” Knoebel said.
Soldotna gets its tournament going today at noon with a meeting against the top seed from the Southeast Conference, Thunder Mountain.
SoHi center fielder Macylea Elsey is one of seven seniors on the team, and has been with the program all four years of high school, and has seen Knoebel lift the program back to a state visitor after Cleveland’s retirement.
“We’ve worked really hard for this from my freshman year to my senior year, and it’s amazing how everyone’s grown and changed,” Elsey said. “It’s helped me to grow out of my shell as well, and we’re ready to lay it all out there.”
From her outfield post, Elsey said she has enjoyed competing with her fellow teammates, which she alluded to as a bunch of interesting characters. She added that the Stars fit together like a puzzle — they do not look like much at first glance, but when put together nicely, they can flaunt some muscle.
“You look at us and go, ‘What?’” Elsey said. “You don’t think we should work together when you look at us, but we’re all quirky and we all have heart, and we just want to play for SoHi.”
The chemistry of the team is apparent in the group, and a no-hitter by sophomore pitcher Emily Jackson against Kodiak on April 29 helped bolster that claim. Jackson has since turned into the workhorse pitcher of the team, putting in innings and delivering fastballs to the waiting glove of sophomore catcher Carlin Meyer.
Jackson said her connection with Meyer has given her renewed confidence.
“We work together very well, and she’s really good behind the plate,” Jackson said.
Jackson said her fastball worked well in the no-no against Kodiak, a pitch that she developed over the offseason from September to March. Jackson benefits from a singular attention on softball — it’s the only after-school sport she plays — which has paid dividends in the form of lots of bullpen sessions.
“I think I’m doing pretty well, I’m pretty confident,” Jackson said.
The top of SoHi’s batting order has consisted of a steady group of seniors that include Amber McDonald, Delaney Crosby-Schneider, Meghan Ussing and Elsey. Other seniors like Jordan Martin and Olivia Farrell have given Soldotna consistent power at the bottom of the order.
Elsey said she and her fellow seniors are ready to give SoHi a state appearance worth remembering.
“We want to make sure they see Stars,” she said about the team’s date with Thunder Mountain.
The Homer Mariners begin their tournament today at 2:30 p.m., playing the winner of the noon game between North Pole and Juneau-Douglas, both second-seeded teams out of the Mid Alaska and Southeast conferences, respectively.
Homer lost to Juneau 17-5 on April 28, a game that the Crimson Bears batted around with 18 hits on Homer. The Mariners haven’t faced North Pole this spring.
“We only had one strikeout, and like five errors in the first inning,” recalls Homer coach Bill Bell.
The Homer softball team has just one state championship banner to its name, but has come close on several other occasions, including state title game appearances in 2007, 2011 and 2012.
The Mariners ended the 2016 regular season 5-1 to capture the Northern Lights Conference crown for a seventh straight year and were 10-8 overall. Homer was actually undefeated in conference play, but an ineligible player conflict erased a 15-4 win over Soldotna in May, leaving the game as a forfeit loss on Homer’s record.
Homer enters the tournament riding the momentum of two dominating conference wins over Kodiak in which the Mariners outscored the Bears 47-2.
But Bell said those two wins don’t mean much for a team that hasn’t won a state title since its inaugural championship in 2006.
“If you asked me a week ago, I’d say we’re a lot stronger,” Bell said.
Bell said the Mariners hit a snag in their state championship aspirations last week when senior catcher Kyah Doughty broke her hand in the last game against Kodiak, putting her out at the state tournament.
With Doughty out, Bell plans to pull senior Isabel Beach from first base to catch, and might move junior Malina Fellows to replace Beach.
Bell said he plans to ride the arm of pitching ace McKi Needham as long as she can hold up this weekend. The dangerous senior enters state with an ERA of 5.19, and sports a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 8-53.
“That’s huge,” Bell said. “She’s not a dominant pitcher, but she’s good at picking her corners.”
Bell said Needham received advice this year from a Seattle University pitching coach, who was in town for a few days with the team.
“It’ll be interesting to see how she uses that,” Bell said. “She already calls her own pitches.”
Needham is also dangerous at the plate, leading the Mariners with 24 RBIs, and has 15 of the team’s 31 doubles. Junior Mary Hana Bowe leads the team in batting with a remarkable .580 average, with Needham and Isabel Beach also batting above .500.
Bell knows the road to the title runs through the Southeast. Ketchikan beat Homer for the state title in 2007, then Sitka got the better of the Mariners two years in a row in 2011 and 2012.
However, he added that the usually weaker Mid Alaska Conference has strengthened, mostly as Hutchison has come on strong this season. Led by the pitching arm of Kelley Ragan, the Hawks beat Homer 6-2 in early May.
“I think it’s a little different tournament than from years past. Juneau isn’t as dominant, and Thunder Mountain is in for the first time ever,” Bell said. “I like it if we don’t have the bye, you get the jitters out and play better, and with a bye, you’ll be playing a team that’s already won.”
Hutchison joins Homer this weekend as the other top-seeded team with a first-round bye.