Homer coach Bill Bell has been involved with Mariners softball since 2004 and made the state tournament in every year except for one in that time, so he’s had a front-row seat to watch as Southeast has taken over the small-schools state softball tournament.
Southeast schools have won every state title since 2009.
“I think they have a real strong culture of softball,” Bell said. “They play in middle school and they travel to play.
“They have a strong tradition and they go back and forth so they drive each other to be stronger. That’s what we hope to do in the Northern Lights.”
Homer (15-7 overall) and Soldotna (8-5) will be the two representatives from the Northern Lights Conference when the state tournament starts with pool play today at South Davis Park Complex in Fairbanks. Soldotna, No. 2 from the NLC, will play defending champ Thunder Mountain at 2:30 p.m. and Hutchison at 5 p.m., while Homer, No. 1 from the NLC, takes on North Pole at noon and Juneau-Douglas at 5 p.m.
Pool play will be used to seed bracket play, which takes place Friday and Saturday.
Both Bell and Soldotna coach Kelli Knoebel said they think a softball culture was spurred by the first NLC tournament last weekend in Homer.
“We grew in different ways you can’t mimic in practice,” Knoebel said. “We had two seven-inning games that came down to the last out.”
During the regular season, games commonly have a time limit. But at the NLC tourney and at state, as long as there is no mercy rule, the game is going seven innings. That’s why the NLC tournament didn’t end until after 10:20 p.m. Saturday.
Bell pointed out that SoHi had coasted past Kodiak in the regular season but had to pull out a marathon, comeback victory over the Bears at the NLC tournament.
“They had that great game with each other that went wire-to-wire,” Bell said. “Now teams can build up over the course of the season and still have a chance at the state tournament.”
State will also give teams more experience thanks to the new pool play format. Homer, making a 17th state appearance in the 18 years of the program, finished second at state in 2011 and 2012 before taking third in 2013, 2014 and 2015. But the 2006 state champs traveled all the way to Fairbanks to go two and out last year.
“They used to be nervous about Anchorage teams but now Southeast is the ones in their head to be nervous about,” Bell said about his team. “This gives us a chance to see more teams at a higher level than we’re playing at and drive forward.”
Knoebel got her program back to state for the second straight season after the Stars had been absent since 2012. The Stars finished fourth last year, the program’s best finish since 2011.
“Every high-quality game, be it win or lose, is great for our program, that’s why it was huge getting back to state two years in a row,” Knoebel said.
Knoebel wasn’t even sure Soldotna would have a team this season after just six players had committed in February. But a bunch of new players showed up on the first day of practice and Knoebel began putting together a state qualifier.
“For us, it’s very humbling to get back, but there’s still that desire to get back and do a couple things better now that we know what to expect,” Knoebel said.
The Stars did have some returning starters in Jazi Larrow, Alicia McClelland, Ember Lohrke, Danielle Hills and Carlin Meyer. But Knoebel said the key is the way everybody on the team came together, and that was never more apparent than last weekend.
“We played a lot of softball last weekend and jelled because everybody was leaning on each other,” Knoebel said.
Bell also has returning starters in seniors Mary Hana Bowe, Annali Metz, Elsie Smith and Malina Fellows. While those players will lead the way, the others will get plenty of valuable experience.
“The freshmen, especially,” Bell said. “They get to experience it so it’s not too big when they come back again.”