To see this amount of growth in this short of a time period, one normally has to resort to time-lapse photography.
When the high school baseball season started a little more than a month ago, Soldotna was an inexperienced team with 12 of its 19 rostered players listed as freshmen and sophomores.
The Stars promptly lost their first six games. The closest contest was a five-run setback.
Rapid maturation has the program making its second state appearance today, when Soldotna takes on West Valley at 1 p.m. at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer in the opening round.
“It took us awhile to get going,” said SoHi senior Josiah Covey. Covey, along with junior Tyler Marcuson and sophomore Mitchel Daugherty, is one of the few players on the team who saw significant varsity time last year.
First-year head coach Roger Phillips said the big question with any team is how much it will grow during the season. He said with seasoned teams, seeing the growth can be tough.
With a young team, seeing that growth is easy.
“I’ve seen us grow in every game,” Phillips said.
Phillips and several of his players pointed to a 10-8 victory over Houston on May 13 as a turning point.
“After the Houston game, we started feeling good,” freshman Max Hegge said. “We started hitting the ball.”
After topping the Hawks, the Stars won four of their next five and scored more than 10 runs in each of those games.
“I just think we started to do more (batting practice) and come together as a team,” sophomore Shayne Miller said.
Phillips said his squad has been hitting indoors all winter. He said his team only got to practice outside for a week before the opener against Kodiak on April 30.
Once the young players applied the winter’s practice to outdoor game situations, good things started happening.
“A big part of it was confidence,” Phillips said. “You could see that they started to get more aggressive at the plate.”
With the bats coming around, the Stars faced just one more hurdle — defense.
The problem surfaced in a big way in the final regular-season Northern Lights Conference game — a 17-4 loss to Colony. Soldotna allowed six runs to score in one inning on just one hit.
While wildness on the mound was part of the culprit, Phillips said shoddy defense put too much pressure on the pitcher.
Despite the loss, the team remained confident heading into the conference tournament, where a state berth would be on the line.
“We just had a bad game,” Covey said. “Everybody had an off game that day.”
The team received an extra boost of confidence when Marcuson returned to the team before the NLC tourney. In the first round, Soldotna topped Houston 9-6 as Tyler Fritz pitched four innings and Marcuson pitched three. The team then defeated Colony 4-3 with Marcuson pitching all seven innings.
The Stars lost 9-7 to Kodiak in the championship.
Phillips said pitching and defense will be key at the state championship.
“Everybody’s going to hit at this level,” the coach said. “The top seven are going to hit.”
The Stars have a team batting average of .294, with Marcuson hitting .556, Covey hitting .463, Mason Kanakis hitting .405 and Fritz hitting .400.
That firepower will mean little if the team gives away runs.
“Routine plays should be routine plays,” Phillips said. “That’s why they call them routine plays.”
If the team plays sharp defense and makes a three-day run at the tournament, depth of the pitching staff will be key. Fourteen Stars have toed the rubber this season, but Marcuson, Fritz, Covey and Daugherty are the main pitchers.
“When you bring in a reliever late in the game, that reliever has to come in throwing strikes,” Phillips said. “That can be tough to find at this level.
“You make the change, the pitcher throws and few balls and you’re like, ‘Boom! Why did I make that change?’”
The Stars made their lone state appearance in 2008. While this year’s squad would love to break new ground for the program with a win, even a run at state would be novel.
SoHi lost 8-0 to North Pole and 6-0 to Chugiak in 2008.