Soldotna softball coach Kelli Knoebel kept clicking off firsts Friday at the small-schools state softball tournament in Fairbanks.
The Stars were making their first state appearance under Knoebel and also the first appearance 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 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 means SoHi can finish no worse than fourth at state. The Stars can start improving that standing when they face North Pole at 9 a.m. Saturday.
“We believed deep in our hearts as a coaching staff that this team had the capability to be one of the four best teams in the state, but I don’t think a lot of people had us being here,” Knoebel said. “It’s great to see the team come together and believe.”
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 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 Carlin 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.
Emily Jackson pitched all seven innings for SoHi, giving up 13 hits, seven runs and walking two.
The Stars banged out 14 hits, with Delaney Crosby-Schneider going 3 for 3 with three RBIs, Amber McDonald going 2 for 4 with an RBI, Danielle 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.
“Kelly 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 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 Mounain, 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.